Decolonizing the African University: Extended Narrative


This essay sought to understand how scholars have understood the relevance of scholarly knowledge through an analysis of education policy and curriculum for “underdeveloped,” vulnerable communities. How have perceptions about the knowledge important for African communities been shaped, delimited, critiqued and transfigured over time, especially by leaders and scholars during the shift from colonial rule to postcolonial independence. I drew in critical post-colonial scholarship derived from the experiences of former British colonies, especially focused on work on and emerging out of my fieldsite--Kenya--in order to examine how the history of colonialism, structural adjustment programs, and more recently, the advent of technology entrepreneurship have shaped expectations of and investments into the “African” university, and imaginaries of what science and technology can do for socioeconomic development. How have perceptions of the ethical and moral dimensions of investing in science and technology training and capacity building in the global South shifted across over time from the 1960s onwards? 

This essay foregrounds key works and debates within African Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and Development Studies related to higher education in Africa. In highlighting various moments where certain stakeholders have been particularly powerful in shaping educational objectives in Africa, I do not intend to suggest a teleological narrative nor am I arguing that these are the only organizations that have shaped African educational policy. Rather, by drawing these varying literatures, debates, and historical time periods together into the same frame, I desire to open up productive spaces for further discussion about the “education crisis” in Africa and the varied proposed solutions.

Double bind: contextualization | universalization of educational curriculum

A double bind that I noted continually re-emerged throughout various works was the recognition on the one hand that education should be tailored for a particular context, and on the other hand, a desire for equal opportunity and access to high quality education regardless of one’s background and context. Interestingly, both British colonial ideas as well as the anti-colonial frameworks offered by "Afrocentric" scholars espoused a need to adapt the curriculum for “African needs”. Clive Whitehead (2005) for example noted that Africans in the 1930s, not surprisingly, rejected a British plan to substitute a "purely literary education" from the British context for one that is more adapted to local context and environment. Clivehead noted that many Africans, especially in the 1930s, rejected the adaptation argument, viewing it as a ploy to keep them in their place. According to these analysts, the British thought it important to control and if possible slow the process of socioeconomic change and believed that a different curriculum for Black Africans was one way to do so. In contrast, the technology case studies of AltSchools and Bridge International are based on a contemporary belief held by many people working in human rights, development, and technology companies that all students should be entitled to (the same) high quality education. These views are of course heavily shaped by a history of unequal opportunities and racial segregation in U.S. education.

Stephen Ball’s 1983 categorization of three competing types of curricula that he argued hold radically different assumptions about the nature and purpose of schooling might be one example to move away from binary categorization of curriculum. He noted an evangelical curriculum; the adapted curriculum; and the academic curriculum, highlighting the various actors with differential investments in these different models.

Double bind: applied knowledge | knowledge for knowledge’s sake

A continued theme that Mamdani (2018) articulates well is the ongoing tension between what he labels the "academic freedom" camp and the "relevance" camp, which might also be more commonly known as knowledge for knowledge’s sake versus applied knowledge. A quick review of the literature on colonial education policy in Africa reveals these two starkly divergent perspectives. For example, postcolonial scholars such as Paulo Freire and Ngugi wa Thiong’o highlighted the importance of seeing language, teaching and learning as inherently political. Whitehead argued against such politics and called for more “scientific” bases for understanding British colonial policies towards African education, leveling that postcolonial scholars such as Freire, Okoth, and Fanon were too “passionate.”

The dichotomy between whose interests are served through the production and application of knowledge and whose empirical realities are used to generate theory and application continues to be an ongoing debate and theme. Some scholars (e.g. Mwiria) hold that colonial education was deliberately planned with the aim to perpetuate colonial rule by colonizing the African mind (see Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s “Decolonizing the Mind” which emerges from this vein later). Others (e.g. Whitehead) argued that it is clear that colonial education policy on Africa was fraught with much confusion of purpose and lack of resources. These scholars argued that in fact Africans desired and pushed for access to Western education (Whitehead 2005).

Funding structures and the metrics and incentive structures to justify and gain support for academic work have contributed to a growing demand for more “applied science” or “science for society.” However, rather than transforming the cultures and methodological approaches of scientific disciplines, have such moves instead simply brought alternative ways to describe academic work? For example, Reardon (2013) explained that justice has emerged as a key organizing principle for practicing scientists and scholars, while more recently Aviles (2018) highlighted that scientists often do not often see their own work as being motivated by profit and instead frame scientific and educational work using humanitarian and ethical values. She suggested that scientists’ understandings of their role as serving the public good reflects their material and political economic environments.

Education for who by who?

Four major problems were identified in the early 1920s with the colonial education systems in Africa through the Phelps-Stokes Commission Reports written by American Jesse Jones: the neglect of school organisation and inspection; neglect of a balanced education policy ensuring an education for both the broad masses and an elite; insufficient coorperation between the different colonial institutions and their representatives; and the lack of opportunities for Africans to participate in decision-making in educational institutions. This last point is also echoed by historian of science in Africa, Helen Tilley (2011) who noted the process of localizing knowledge was paradoxical because while insights from African experiences were folded into scientific disciplines, Africans themselves were not driving the decision making. She asked: “could science be Africanized without African scientists? Just what counted as science, and who would decide?” (Tilley 2011: 342).

Capital, technology and wage labor: Continuities and shifts from colonial to Bretton Woods to tech philanthropy

In the World Bank’s 1974 Education Sector Policy Paper, it was argued that educational content in developing countries was “dysfunctional” because it was “more theoretical and abstract and less practical” (World Bank 1974). Such rhetoric paved the way for the Bank to restrict government borrowing for secondary education investments solely towards physical infrastructure such as metal and woodshops for boys, and materials for domestic science for girls as these subjects were thought to be more “practical” (Heyneman 2003).

This echoes colonial ideas about the need for a more “Africanized” curriculum that is practical in nature and aims to develop a “stable peasantry” (Ball 1983).
As late as the 1990s, the World Bank (1988, 1994b, 1994a) suggested that Africa had no need for universities because the return on investment was too low and unjustifiable. The Bank argued that Africa would be better served by investing in primary education and vocational education, and it was assumed that training African students in universities abroad would be cheaper, more cost effective and beneficial. Malawian historian Paul Zeleza (2007, 2016) noted that more recent World Bank publications and pronouncements suggest a radical rethinking of the anti-university orientation of the 1990s, although this has not come with any admission of the Bank’s earlier position or acceptance of responsibility for severe damages to the university system across the continent as a result of World Bank’s policy influences on African governments. For example, a World Bank report published in 2017 asserted that despite Africa’s newly independent governments investing heavily in education and training in the 1960s, it was “the first oil crisis in the early 1970s and the subsequent collapse of many African economies caused by the concurrent effects of corruption and increasing indiscipline in public budget management” that put many African universities under significant strain, with negative implications for their management and performance. Here we see no mention of the World Bank’s fundamental role in crippling African universities through their enactment of severe austerity measures and economic reforms. Instead, the blame is pointed at Africans for their supposed corruption and indiscipline in budget management.
While the World Bank today appears to be placing importance on developing Africa’s higher education system (2016, 2017), the strong market-instrumentalist logic permeating its approach decomposes any notion that higher education is valued as a public and intellectual good. With market imperatives and ideology increasingly reigning supreme, universities (both in Kenya, Africa, and the West) are increasingly compelled to seek valorization for their private and vocational good. This disintegration of the notion of education as a public good enables outside interests to lay claim to filling the perceived skills gap left by Kenyan universities through trainings, either sponsored or paid for by the World Bank and techphilanthropic organizations like the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation that invested $24 million USD in Andela in 2016 (Konrad 2017). Thus, while today’s tech entrepreneurship trainings may seem to be enacting new practices to meet new demands of the African tech labor market, such training may in fact be a re-sedimenting of earlier forms of control by Bretton Woods and other Western institutions in the face of anti-development critiques.

Future Elaborations

The points raised above reflect initial insights as part of ongoing analysis of this work. Future elaborations of this essay will focus on reorganizing the design so that all annotations are entered and foregrounded in the essay in a form similar to the STS in Africa and Collaboration essays. Time restrictions prevented redoing this version of the essay and this first “experiment” of the orals document form does not foreground an individual PhD student’s analytic work as prominantly as the other PECE styles that were developed later. Nonetheless, the style of this essay could be generative as a pedagogical tool to elicit students to engage with these diverse materials within one frame and I could envision such an essay form to teach a class, for example.


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Contributed date

September 4, 2018 - 4:43pm

Critical Commentary

AO: This artifact is a work in progress and aims to offer some first insights related to the essay.

Cite as

Angela Okune, "Decolonizing the African University: Extended Narrative", contributed by Angela Okune, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 September 2018, accessed 13 June 2024.