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Higher Education in Development: Lessons from Sub Saharan Africa

reviewed by Abdeljalil Akkari & Christopher Cleary - October 19, 2012

coverTitle: Higher Education in Development: Lessons from Sub Saharan Africa
Author(s): Kate Ashcroft & Philip Rayner (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617355410, Pages: 320, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

There are few books that have addressed the issue of higher education in Africa. This book by Ashcroft and Rayner fills a real need to better understand one of the most important challenges of the continent. The authors have lived in sub-Saharan Africa for many years, working in higher education at the government and university levels. They observed how international cooperation has struggled to improve the quality of higher education, while trying to promote good governance and reduce poverty.

One of the first issues raised by this book is the “disconnect between the knowledge and expertise that development workers bring to the situation and the needs and interests of those working permanently in the country” (p. 2).  Ashcroft and Rayner propose that an alternative way of making changes is needed in higher education in Africa:

We became interested in this process of successfully achieving some deep change and the ways that change might become embedded, owned and adopted over time. We wanted to tease out what the elements are in the mix of context, ideas, concepts, attitudes, behaviors, and qualities that makes it more likely that a development intervention will (a) be adopted in some form and (b) will then improve the situation. (p. 2)

The book alternates between analysis and case studies. However, the main goal is to give practical advice to administrators and stakeholders. "Europe has been refining its quality-assurance methods for higher education for nearly 30 years while many sub-Saharan countries still do not have any quality-assurance processes in place" (p. 4).

The book is rich with numerous case studies from the field of international cooperation. For instance, Ashcroft and Rayner analyzed the reasons for the failure of a World Bank’ project in Ethiopia:

From our observation and discussions with World Bank and Ministry of Education officials and others, there appeared to be various problems with the project from the start: the Ministry of Education lacked the capacity to manage the World Bank procurement in a timely manner, and evaluation systems were weak. University managers peer-reviewed proposals from other universities against World Bank criteria, but were overgenerous in their assessments, allowing inadequate and unrealistic proposals to be accepted. There might have been a variety of reasons for this: a culture of politeness and nonconfrontation; the close-knit network of friendships within a relatively small system; or the hope that if they pass others' proposals, others will pass theirs. Universities also put more proposals than they could reasonably manage at any one time. (p. 8)

Ashcroft and Rayner point out that higher education within the sub-Saharan context always faces dilemmas of inputs, processes and outcomes. Inputs are scarce or inadequate in their quality, so it is hard to hold people to account for the quality of processes and outcomes. Resources and equipment are also neglected, scarce, and underutilized. How to manage existing resources and increase quality without an influx of new resources is a central development dilemma. Both the perspectives of internal stakeholders (staff, students, and managers) and external stakeholders (employers and communities) need to be matched.

The participation rate in higher education is still low in most sub-Saharan countries. The average rate in 2006 was 5%, with South Africa among the highest at 15%. This compares poorly with the average rates worldwide. At the same time, the authors also point out that most African countries are unable to absorb current graduates of higher education. In the 60's and 70's, graduating from university meant virtually guaranteed employment, because African countries needed to replace the colonial staff. The current impossibility of social mobility through higher education creates frustration and a sense of injustice among students and their parents.

The issue of the funding of higher education is crucial. The sustainability of sub-Saharan higher education systems in terms of quality and of the employability of their graduates depends upon finding ways to fund these systems in the future, and in developing systems and structures that are as cost effective as possible. Without such sustainable resources, the graduates will be of inferior quality and will inhibit the development of the country and the ability of the universities within it to regenerate themselves and the economy.

The issue of who benefits, and who should pay for higher education, is addressed by the authors. The debate is perhaps even more intense in sub-Saharan countries where the higher education sector is being massified, and where governments are increasingly looking for alternative sources of funding, as they can rarely finance the cost of expansion solely through the public purse. As in more developed countries, this means that students are increasingly being asked to contribute to their education, a price that they are expected to pay for the “privilege” of higher education.

According to Ashcroft and Rayner, the dominance of ex-colonial languages in higher education proves problematic not only because it is a reminder of a colonial past but also, more significantly, because of the poor language skills that many students and academic staff possess. Faculty may have difficulty in explaining complex ideas as a result of poor language skills. Students will then struggle to understand, especially if their own competence in the language is limited. On the other hand, many African universities have to contend with a multilingual, multiethnic mix of staff and students who might resent any one of the indigenous languages becoming the official mode of instruction. A European language can be useful as a safer, more neutral mode where there are ethnic tensions.

Throughout their book, the authors rarely adopt a critical stance, which is necessary to understand the situation of the university in Africa. For example, when they consider decentralization, quality assurance, standards, curriculum design and accountability as adequate solutions to reform the university:

We argue that quality is not a unitary concept, rather that it represents a complex set of ideas and quality-assurance approaches and practices that have developed over time and within different contexts to achieve various ends in the interests of various stakeholders. This means that definitions, meanings, practices and approaches can vary and are sometimes in conflict, or at least in tension with each other (p. 142).

Thus, while they are important, standards have little to say about the quality of processes or those aspects of inputs and outcomes that cannot be measured (inspirational teaching, creativity, new life view), which can create and can result from quality education.

Another issue raised by the authors is the lack of role models. In many African countries, the traditional way of learning in the home and in the schools is through transmission: rote and repetition. Students might never have experienced active learning themselves: their undergraduate and previous education might not have included any opportunities for problem solving. Building culturally and locally appropriate pedagogies for higher education in Africa is a necessity despite the predominance of colonial languages (Dasen & Akkari, 2008).

The big weakness of the book is that it fails to situate the reform of higher education in Africa within the larger context of educational and development policies. Improving the quality of higher education in the region is not only about instruments (quality assurance, accountability, assessment), but it is mainly about the role of the university in society and its ability to build on African cultures and strengths.

This book is a significant and welcome addition to an important topic that does not receive enough attention. Our complaints of the book, that it does not take a critical stance often enough, and that it does not go far enough in placing higher education within the context of African development as a whole, are not minor ones. However, the main purpose of the book, that people working to develop higher education, "might be helped to be a little more insightful about the reality of the dilemmas Africa and its people face and a little more sensitive to the complexity of the development worker's task" (p. 2), was clearly met.


Dasen, P. & Akkari, A. (Eds.). (2008). Educational ideas from the majority world. Delhi: Sage India.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 19, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16906, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 8:31:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Abdeljalil Akkari
    University of Geneva
    E-mail Author
    ABDELJALIL AKKARI is a professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Geneva. His two main foci of research are comparing international tendencies in education policies and analyzing the role of international cooperation in education development and in the transformations of school formats in countries of the South. Recent publications in English include:

    Akkari, A., Mellouki, M., & Tardif, M. (2009). Professional Identity and Induction Profiles of Novice Secondary Teachers: Initial Results of a Qualitative Study. International Journal of Teacher Leadership, 2(2), 1-23.

    Akkari, A. (2008). Education in the Maghreb: From the Construction to the Consolidation of Educational Systems . Analytical Reports in International Education, 2(1), 89-106.

    Dasen, P. & Akkari, A. (Ed.). (2008). Educational ideas from the majority world. Delhi: Sage India.

  • Christopher Cleary
    University of Geneva
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER CLEARY is a doctoral student at the University of Geneva examining the role of the cultural diversity of the teaching pool within Switzerland.
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