Damtew Teferra

Damtew Teferra

"I am an Ethiopian by nationality and based at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. I am the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa and director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa."

Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa and Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa.

“Even though Africa has been independent for more than four decades now, the colonial legacy is still felt strongly in higher education, in the books students and teachers read, the languages they write in and the languages journals are published in.”

Damtew Teferra is the author of the paper Financing Higher Education in sub-Saharan Africa, published in the GUNI report Higher Education in the World 2006. The editor-in-chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa talks about the challenges of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

Which is the predominant higher education model in sub-Saharan Africa?

The model is shaped by the former colonial powers: Britain, France and Portugal. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have not moved away from the systems set up by these colonial powers. In Francophone countries, the system is very close to the French system, and the situation is similar in Lusophone or Portuguese-speaking countries. Having said that, it is the American model that is now dominant the world over, and it's knocking at the doors of sub-Saharan countries.

What are the different effects of this colonial legacy in the Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone countries?

One central element of the colonial legacy is the language of instruction. The Francophone countries, for example, still continue to use the language of colonial rulers, as do the Anglophone and Lusophone countries, so in that way the colonial legacy persists. Curricula and institutional infrastructure have also been inherited from the colonial period. Even though Africa has been independent for more than four decades now, the colonial legacy is still felt strongly in higher education, in the books students and teachers read, the languages they write in and the languages journals are published in. Virtually no native African language has been used as a medium of instruction in higher education institutions in sub-Saharan Africa yet, though countries such as Sudan and South Africa are grappling with Arabic and Afrikaans respectively. Furthermore, the most common colonial legacy was the suppression of higher education development in the colonies. All colonial powers, though some are harsher than others, had a clear policy of checking, let alone expanding, higher education in the colonized countries. When African countries became independent some four decades ago, no wonder the number of university graduates was so minuscule.

Why do you think the higher education system in Africa is in financial crisis?

Finance is probably the most critical challenge facing the development of higher education in Africa. Financial problem in higher education is a common phenomenon all over the world, but in Africa the magnitude and depth of the problem is immense on several levels: in terms of resources allocated to higher education institutions overall; money allocated to subscribing journals, purchasing books and laboratory equipment; and the amount of money allocated for research and development. In some countries, the amount of funds allocated to research and development is just laughable, to the point where it pretty much does not exist. These are not the only problems: African countries have serious problems in maintaining and sustaining quality higher education. There are also serious access issues, while at the same time the enrolment rates are very low—the lowest in the world. Institutions are under pressure to expand, and governments in particular, and institutions as well, are under pressure to expand the institutions and yet the amount of resources available are far from sufficient. Higher education has to compete for resources with other social services such as healthcare, and primary and secondary education, and infrastructure development. Moreover, the external agencies—such as the international financial institutions—and their policies had been unfavorable to higher education development until very recently.

In what ways can these issues be addressed?

First of all, it is very important to encourage and lobby national governments, external agencies, financial institutions, bilateral and multilateral agencies and foundations to support African higher education development—in a sustained manner. It is critical to build strong and effective higher learning institutions for sustained social and economic progress. In the era we currently live in, knowledge is a critical asset for development; and as a central node for knowledge production and dissemination, higher education institutions must be supported and expanded. Second higher education institutions themselves have to be conscious in managing their meager resources effectively and judiciously. For instance in many African countries a good chunk of university resources are allocated for activities that have peripheral relevance to the main raison d’etre of the institutions—teaching and learning. Several cost sharing initiatives are underway currently in many African countries which include the introduction of tuition and fees, canceling student stipends, establishing student loan systems, and so on. Mixed results have been reported from these developments; and more critical work need to be done to grasp the extent, impact and consequences of these developments, which some describe as the “privatization of public institutions”. Third, private institutions in Africa are growing at a considerable rate for several reasons, the main one of which, is the inability of public institutions to accommodate the growing demand for access and programs.. Notwithstanding, the complex issues surrounding the high growth of private institutions, these institutions are playing a role in relieving the pressure from the public institutions.

Is the signing of agreements with private foundations from other countries, for example from the United States, a good way of securing funding?

Yes, it is; but the success of the initiatives depends on how you play it, how you frame it, how it is implemented, how it is directed, and how it is revealed,. Major foundations in the US have already committed close to one hundred and fifty million dollars to revitalizing African higher education institutions, but that is minute compared to the huge task of building higher education in the continent. You need massive resources because higher education is expensive and moreover higher education development is still at an earlier stage compared to the rest of the world, meaning you need to expand higher education to a much larger extent, which means a lot of money, a lot of input. No one actually said this at the GUNI Conference on Higher Education, but endowment is very, very important for higher education development. American institutions generate billions of dollars through endowment, which can also be tapped into to fund African institutions. Endowment is very important for institutions, at least in terms of the programs that they want to run promoting research and and so on. Endowment is an important issue that has not actually been looked at as a means of propping higher education development in the continent.

What about the actions of the World Bank and UNESCO in higher education in Africa?

The World Bank had played a crucial, albeit harmful, role in higher education financing in Africa. The Bank has now shifted its position in its favor after debunking its long held view set on the basis of certain faulty variables and measures. While the Bank has yet to exhibit the extent of its commitment to higher education development in Africa, its acknowledgment and blessing, however, have considerable significance. UNESCO has not yet played a critical role in the higher education debates, though this is changing slowly. A number of institutions are now working on higher education issues in Africa, and we hoped they would moderate different views on higher education development overall and of course funding issues in particular. There are some people of the opinion that the World Bank has yet to prove its commitment to higher education development. For me, it's not just about the amount of money it allocates to African higher education: the fact that it is giving that green light is a good thing, in the sense that not just countries in Africa but also bilateral agencies and other institutions that follow in the World Bank’s footsteps in terms of policy decisions, will definitely pick up the signal, meaning ultimately supporting African higher education development.
“Africa requires billions of dollars, massive high-level human resources, huge infrastructure and extensive networks to compete with the rest of the world.”

How are the issues of autonomy and accountability being addressed by African universities?

When an institution is depending on government subsidies for 90-95% of its income, it is bound to listen and accommodate the issues of its benefactors. Not that this need to be the case, but the more financially dependent an institution becomes, the less autonomous it tends to be. If you talk about autonomy, you also have to think about accountability. If you are giving money to these institutions you expect accountability on their part. There have been some important developments in some countries where institutions are given more leeway in running their institutional affairs. If you generate your own resources, you have much more autonomy in spending the money as you wish, setting up new programs, addressing the issues of your choice, the decision on promotions, and so on. Innovation was a central theme at a conference organized by the Association of African Universities a while back. This conference brought together institutional leaders from around Africa to discuss and share ideas how they managed to implement several initiatives on their own within the existing framework of autonomy and accountability. Overall, the state of autonomy in many African universities is getting increasingly better while at the same time accountability is emphasized ever more.

In Africa, do you think an effort should be made to integrate the university system into the competitive knowledge society, or is there still room for the social responsibility of universities as social institutions? Do you think that the African system can now start to compete with universities in the knowledge society or are its obligations to society still paramount?

Africa requires billions of dollars, massive high-level human resources, huge infrastructure and extensive networks to compete with the rest of the world. We live in a knowledge economy and every country is exploring a variety of ways to sharpen its competitive edge; thus public institutions are being pressed to address issues of social equity and also become competitive—though these are not mutually exclusive. Universities as social institutions should never shy away from addressing national social and cultural issues, while at the same time, promoting competitiveness in a global market place. As social institutions, they have a lot of responsibility, and at the same time they are an important platform from which to compete with foreign institutions. In order however to effectively address social and economic issues regionally as well as compete globally, many outstanding international regimes, such as trade agreements, specially GATS, debt relief, and economic and financial dimensions, need to be fair and equitable.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government