Skip to main content

Review of Public and Private Universities in Kenya / Gender in the Making of the Nigerian University System / Change and Transformation in Ghana's Publicly Funded University


By James Gibbs

Public and Private Universities in Kenya: New Challenges, Issues & Achievements. Kilemi Mwiria, Njugna Ng’ethe, Charles Ngome, Douglas Ouma-Odero, Violet Wawire and Daniel Wesonga. James Currey, Oxford, and East African Educational Press, Nairobi, 2007. Pp. 204. ISBN 978-0-85255-442-5 (pb). £14.95

Gender in the Making of the Nigerian University System. Charmaine Pereira. James Currey, Oxford and Heinemann Educational Books (Plc), Ibadan, 2007. Pp.203. ISBN 978-0-85255-172-1 (pb). £14.95

Change & Transformation in Ghana’s Publicly Funded Universities
. Takyiwaa Manuh, Sulley Gariba and Joseph Budu. James Currey, Oxford and Woeli, Accra. 2007. Pp. 175. ISBN 978-0-85255-171-4 (pb). £14.95.

The universities established in Africa after the Second World War were designed to produce graduates who would supply what were sometimes described – with hostages to fortune – as ‘the high-level manpower needs of new nations as they joined the community of independent sovereign states’. In Anglophone countries Oxbridge patterns were influential and the University of London was the degree-awarding institution for the newly-established ‘University Colleges’. Such high standards were insisted on that University College at Ibadan became known as ‘a failing factory’ whose rejects and ejects often succeeded in ‘winning the golden fleece’ of a degree from a university in the ‘mother country’.

For some years after independence, Anglophone African universities held tenaciously to imported patterns. I recall Ivy Compton-Burnett was on the syllabus in a resolutely British-oriented English Department of the University of Ghana, Legon, during the late sixties. It took a revolution by young lecturers in Nairobi to establish a new trend in which English Departments were replaced by ‘Literature Departments’ centred on local experience. Since then Africa has been ‘swept by confused alarms’ sounded by world movements that have included a new wave of feminism, the digital revolution and the HIV/AIDS epidemic or pandemic. African universities grappled with these while being asked to increase student intake, cope with political appointments, manage on reduced staffing levels, survive on very limited subsidies, and assess the quality of ‘the student experience’.

The three studies listed at the head of this review appear in the Higher Education in Africa series and examine aspects of the University system in three African countries in order to initiate debate. Each provides information that gives grounds for concern, but will not surprise those who have been keeping an eye on the situation since Compton-Burnett was on the syllabus at Legon. Details from the books themselves vividly indicate the circumstances under which undergraduates in Africa study. For example, library provision is often inadequate, attempts to increase numbers of female undergraduate are sometimes thwarted, and tensions over accommodation have been building up. These studies tell stories that shock even those familiar with the under-funded, over-stretched, constantly-scrutinized British university system. From the study on Kenya, we learn that the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Library originally intended for 6,000 readers, now caters for 16,715, and that at Moi University ‘400 students sometimes chase one or two books’. (40) Figures produced by the Nigerian National Universities Commission for 2001 highlighted the worrying failure to attract more female students to universities in the north. Figures for the universities in Bauchi and Yola showed the number of female students actually fell between 1992 /3 and 1997/8 from 615 to 412 in one case, and from 818 to 581 in the other. Staff levels are worryingly low in Nigerian universities. The source just quoted indicates that the University of Ilorin only had 531 academic staff, a shortfall of 1090. In Ghana the so-called ‘Universities’ for Development Studies and for Education had no subscriptions to any journals (74). Accommodation was an area in which the universities in Ghana failed students just as spectacularly. However, the authors of the relevant study listed above were sanguine, observing: “In terms of residential facilities, the crunch in student housing has led all the universities to increase investment in campus housing”. The authors avert their eyes from the overcrowding that has up to six students at Legon ‘perching’ in rooms designed for one, and that has made impossible demands of the sewage disposal system. They write of the construction of a 400-bed hostel and gesture to the “multi-billion cedi housing complex, known as Jubilee Hall”, that, when completed, will accommodate over 1,000. They write as if the ‘crunch’ had been felt and relieved, the repercussions monitored, and the ‘student experience’ made uniformly satisfactory. As we will see, this is far from the case.

The three books share a Preface that is signed by the Presidents of the four funding bodies: the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford, Macarthur and Rockefeller Foundations. Together these major funders constitute the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Although giving away fortunes made by men who were typically launched into their prosperous careers by apprenticeships, the grant-makers share a belief in higher education and in the transforming power of universities. The Preface speaks of ‘the ability of African universities to transform themselves, and to promote national development’. (Pereira, xiii) This faith is expanded into a creed that enshrines the conviction that “an independent scholarly community, supported by strong universities goes hand in hand with a healthy, stable democracy”. Amplified, this emerges as the doctrine that, appropriately transformed, universities can produce “generations of engaged citizens (who) will nourish social, political, and economic transformation in the continent”. Steadfast in this conviction, that I would like to share but cannot wholly, the grant-makers pooled resources to advance the reform of African universities. $150,000,000 was contributed during the first five years of the Partnership’s life and a minimum of $200,000,000 has been pledged for the second five-year programme. This began on 16 September 2005, and saw the addition to the Partnership of the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations.

As the titles of the three books considered here indicate, the case studies vary somewhat in approach. All, however, find a place under the Major Aims of the Partnership that are listed as

• Generating and sharing information about African universities and higher education
• Supporting universities seeking to transform themselves
• Enhancing research capacity on higher education in Africa
• Promoting collaboration among African researchers, academics and university administrators

Initially the Partnership chose Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda for attention on the grounds that the universities in these countries were already “initiating positive change, developing a workable planning process, and demonstrating genuine commitment to national capacity-building, in contexts of national reform”. (xiii) An election later Kenya has been added, but Zambia and Sierra Leone, for example, must be wondering how they blotted their copy books. And it would not be surprising to hear concerned Francophones scanning the list and muttering about ‘les Anglo-Saxons’.

The scholars and administrators funded by the Partnership to collect and collate, research and recommend represent a range of academics and administrators, many of them relatively junior. It is instantly apparent that these voices are from the Senior Common Room rather than from, say a Committee of Vice-Chancellors or the cabal that meets in the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge. The most adventurous choice is the sole author of the Nigerian volume, Charmaine Pereira, who stands outside the main university system as ‘the National Co-ordinator of the Network for Women's Studies in Nigeria’. Her published research, that includes a robust study of Zina (roughly adultery) and transgressive heterosexuality in northern Nigeria, has already taken her into sensitive areas and she engages with the contested topic of gender in Nigerian universities trenchantly in this series. From the books on Kenya and Ghana, it is apparent that gender reflects an important preoccupation for the series. Gender is on the series’ agenda, along with the use of ICT and responses to HIV/AIDS. These topics are addressed, or at least acknowledged, in each of the books, and, from time to time, we glimpse the yawning chasm of the digital divide or feel the chill shadow of the ravages of HIV/AIDS.

Pereira’s work, like that of all the others, is based on extensive consultation. But it is unlike the others in adopting a conventional academic approach. For example, she begins with a glossary, shows an awareness of other studies in the field, provides an historical analysis, and then examines the current situation. She is meticulous, and persuasive, mingling statistical analysis (she includes 26 Tables and 14 Lists of Figures) with vivid testimonies. Her final chapter, entitled ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’, opens with a statement that sums up her intention: “This study has sought to engender an understanding of the workings of the university system”. It was an ambitious goal and one hopes that the approach adopted will be successful. One hopes that the momentum begun by her interviews and encouraged by the publication will be maintained. However, Pereira provides abundant evidence why progress on gender issues in Nigerian universities might be slow. Her distressingly long list of ways in which male academics indicate their lack of respect for female counterparts begins with: “jokes, snide remarks, insinuations, (and) derogatory comments in class to students...” (160) In light of this, one wonders if Pereira’s work will be given the attention it deserves.

That all is not well in African academia is clear. At the time of writing this the news coming from the University of Ghana indicates new depths of dissatisfaction have been reached and that students have shown their disaffection in new ways. The shortage of accommodation recently prompted the administration to introduce an ‘in-out-out-out’ system whereby students will spend their first years on campus and succeeding years off campus. Student opinion has run fiercely against this and in favour of an ‘in-out-out-in’ pattern. That is to say, a return to campus for the final year. Feelings have run so high there has been a ‘weaponising’ of bodily waste and angry students have disrupted end-of-year assessment processes by ‘shit bombing’ examination halls. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Clifford Tagoe, has responded by announcing that the University of Ghana has secured a ¢260 billion loan from a consortium of banks for the construction of a 7,100-bed facility. That the situation has deteriorated so far and that student numbers have so far outstripped provision is entirely at odds with the approach advocated by Pereira and the other authors. The concern with the process of consultation and the commitment to planning embodied in the series is at odds with the situation glimpsed by the student action and the V-C’s panicky response. The episode stands in juxtaposition to the optimism of the grant-makers’ Preface.

It is not clear how much of the Partnership’s funding has gone into the preparation of these books and the others in the series. The funders have certainly been well-served by the authors and publishers who have produced challenging, substantial and elegant volumes. But it is by no means certain that the books, which have been some five years in the making, will result in any change. There is no guarantee that Vice-Chancellors and their ‘management teams’ will give them the attention they deserve. I hope they do, and, as the cleaners get to work in the examination halls at Legon, I hope that faith in the transforming power of universities is vindicated.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 84-88]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: