Universities and social transformation in sub-Saharan Africa: global rhetoric and local contradictions

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This paper's principal purpose is to explore the range of ways in which African universities act as public institutions - i.e. how they both are shaped by and influence the social, political and economic contexts in which they are situated. In particular, it considers the multiple dimensions, often resulting in tensions in contexts of poverty, instability and radical transformation, of African universities as actors in politics, civil society and the public sphere. Drawing on recent projects and discussions in which the author took part, the paper tries in particular to explain how the degraded state of most universities in the region which began in the late 1970s and into the 1980s should not be taken to mean that they had become irrelevant to the societies and polities in which they were embedded. Examples are offered of how higher education institutions, and especially the major public universities (often of colonial origin), have often remained key sites for upward mobility strategies, critique and mobilisation on behalf of political change even in the face of authoritarian and corrupt regimes, in contexts of weakened national economies, and even when higher education (primarily encapsulated in public universities) fell out of favour of multilateral and bilateral cooperation agencies. In conclusion, the paper discusses current initiatives by international donors and development agencies to revitalise higher education in Africa, and ensure an 'expansion of tertiary institutions constructed as sites for personal advancement and private benefit' (The World Bank 2002) and how their managerial and cost-effective orientations may thin out the crucial public good dimension of African universities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-153
Number of pages15
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • Africa
  • Higher education
  • Policy
  • Public good
  • University
  • World Bank

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