African universities are behind the curve.
Of the 500 leading global universities, only two — both South African — make the list.
What is the issue? The Ugandan intellectual, Mamdhani, argues that African universities, established at independence, have become symbolic and emblematic must-haves much like a flag.
Others argue that a social reproduction function limits access to higher education, so elites beget elites, who with their tertiary and professional education maintain power dynamics and status quo in societies.
The debate of what a university is and what is its function is very old.
Indeed, universities are one of the oldest institutions of human civilisations tracing their history back to ancient kingdoms, including in Africa.
The famous al-Azhar University in Egypt and as-Sadiqiyya in Tunisia are over 1,000 years old.
They, like the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England, Sorbonne in France, and Louvain in Belgium, founded between 600-800 years ago, began as seminaries.
Their explicit purpose was to steer society according to religious principles and to select and prepare future leadership grounded in the Church’s moral position.
In the intervening period of the Reformation and European Enlightenment, universities embraced the scientific method, supported exploration of the globe and ‘discovered’ new continents, and helped their countries to exploit knowledge and maintain global predominance.
Importantly, European universities also supported the development of higher education in the colonies.
The three prominent East African universities - Dar es-Salaam, Makerere and Nairobi - were all constituent colleges of the University of London.
They were formed with the explicit purpose of creating the generation of indigenous leadership that would be ready to govern and to support the development of fledging independent nation states. Thus was born the idea of a ‘development university’.
The development university that is now the fashion all across Africa is in the service of the nation state and reliant on extraneous producers of knowledge, which it consumes with passion and passes onto its students who are now designated as clients.
The universities are not solely to be blamed for the lowly position they occupy in society.
It is as if the world has either forgotten or willingly ignores the university as a critical organ of society.
The African Union’s blueprint for Africa, the Continental Education Strategy for African 2016-2025, and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals or Education 2030 Agenda, are both fashioned from the view of basic education.
This focus on basic education, which covers primary and secondary schooling of eight to 12 years duration, reinforces higher education’s service delivery function.
It is limited to train teachers to serve in schools to educate our children and prepare professionals, including technologists, to serve the needs of the economy to develop the state.
All countries in the world are signatories to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that influences education policymaking, funding, and partnerships.
The SDG education goal 3: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’, or CESA 16-25 mention the role of universities in their own right.
Universities are prima facie knowledge producers and worthy of being supported for their critical functions in society as repositories and archives of human achievement and as key organs of society that reflect societal and planetary needs and seek new knowledge-based solutions.
The search for knowledge is endless and this search is embodied in higher education pursuits.
Happily, the High-Level Pan-African Conference on Education meeting held in Nairobi in April 2018 recognised this oversight.
One of its key recommendations remains consonant with the SDG4 and CESA 2025 to support human and social capital growth with education and skills, recognising the importance of science and technology.
However, the Declaration makes a bold statement on the role of higher education.
Article 7 of the Nairobi Declaration text gladdens and inspires: “We recognise that the transformation of Africa requires strengthened efforts to move towards knowledge-based societies through the advancement of higher education and research in Africa, with special focus on relevance and equitable access, strengthening of research, and teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics”. [emphasis in the original text].
What is particularly important in the Nairobi Declaration is the acknowledgment that good quality teaching and learning goes hand in hand with developing research and new knowledge capability within Africa.
As Africa contends with existential threats, possibly more than other regions, that portend destruction of lives and livelihoods from impending global crises related to climate change, unplanned urbanisation, protracted crises and cross-border conflicts, and increased demographic pressures, universities have a critical role to play.
Africa is the youngest continent, with the age cohort of people aged 25-59 comprising 35 per cent of the total population and its overall population projected to grow.
Africa also has the largest number of least developed countries — 33 of 47 — where population will grow, conflicts more likely, and urbanisation increasing.
As we consider the futures we face, it is universities that are providing hope.
They develop new frontier technologies, enable students to work collaboratively, empowers them to find solutions, and support academics to engage in interdisciplinary research to reach new knowledge.
With the support of world-class universities, Africa leads in biotechnology and agro-industry solutions required in the face of climate change and changing ecosystems.
This is fundamental to ensure food security, control disease, and protect and preserve the environment.
Other universities are engaged in space exploration and creation of new knowledge, products and services harnessing big data.
Yet other universities are engaged in confronting cultural appropriation as they document and celebrate knowledge that has all but been discarded in the modern world.
This affords dignity to cultures, maintains the store of heritage, and promotes a dialogue among value propositions as we steer uncharted waters.
This store of indigenous knowledge in dialogue with global knowledge will be our map as we learn how to work with machines and artificial intelligence in the ubiquity of the digital ecosystems that is growing all around us.
The challenge for African universities is to manage and utilise knowledge so that we do not again become recipients of knowledge products, which are not value-neutral and come at a high societal development cost.
Anil Khamis teaches at the Aga Khan University (Institute for Education Development / Institute for Human Development)