The assault on African education

The assault on the developmentalist university came from the new global development bureaucracy, particularly the Bretton Woods institutions. They were home to a radically different developmentalism. To understand the difference, we need to take two factors into account.

For a start, think of the end of colonialism, a development that left a large number of colonial bureaucrats unemployed. Many were seconded to the bureaucracies of the new multilateral institutions. I have no idea of how many, if any, came to staff the Commonwealth Secretariat. But I have in mind the World Bank.

The World Bank began with a frontal assault on African universities at a conference of vice-chancellors of African universities that it called in Harare in 1986. There, it advised the VCs that it would make economic sense to close universities in independent Africa and have its human resource needs trained in universities in the West. Unable to convince the VCs to do themselves out of a job, the bank changed tack, and followed with a different strategy, that of conditional aid.

The second line of attack took the form of “technical assistance”, leading to the inflow of expatriate staff from donor countries as technical experts, their salaries and perks paid from the component of “aid” known as “technical assistance”. The counterpart of this was what we call the “brain drain”, the outflow of national intellectuals, most taking up jobs in the West.

Do excuse me one bit of speculation here. Given the obvious difference between incoming expatriates, who were securing jobs under monopolistic conditions, and nationals, who had to compete in open markets, economists are likely to tell us that those who succeed under free market skies are likely to be of a superior quality than those who shelter under monopolies. If so, then the quality of intellectuals Africa lost in the period after independence was surely much higher than that of the technical experts it welcomes as part of “technical aid”. The World Bank estimated recently that roughly half of university graduates of universities in independent Africa have left for overseas since independence. Sandwiched between international donors and critical intellectuals at home, national governments sadly acquiesced in the marginalisation of national intellectuals.

The World Bank developed a substantial critique of the developmentalist university. To take it seriously, we need to disaggregate it so we can distinguish the positive from the negative. The positive part resonated with wider audiences and earned the bank much support during its initial call for market-oriented reform of universities. The first part of the bank’s critique was that the developmentalist university was duplicating an expensive colonial model for training a narrow and privileged elite. Other parts talked of the need for greater university autonomy, and for a much-needed broadening of the financial base for higher education.

Then there was the negative side, which in many ways summed up the core of the bank’s agenda, and had a deadly effect on the future of higher education in middle Africa. Bank studies claimed to show that the rate of return on investment in higher education was much lower than in secondary or primary education, and the benefit was mainly private. Thus the bank argued that beneficiaries should share a significant part of the cost. It thus called for a reduction of state funding to higher education ...

It may be that only those countries with a dense network of higher education institutions, like South Africa and Nigeria in this continent, can afford to have a national research university. But, even in the small country context, one needs to think of a decent liberal arts college with a decent general education that responds to both a changing global environment and to local histories and contexts — a site for general education that can produce a generation of leaders with a shared understanding of the local context and an opportunity to forge a vision of how to transform it. None of this can be left to the market.

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman professor of government at Columbia University in New York City. This is an edited extract of his December 12 speech to the Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Cape Town

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