[OPINION] Olu Obafemi and the transformation of African universities
(Part 5 of the Interview Series for the Olu Obafemi’s 71st Birthday Conference)
Universities are both physical and non-physical infrastructure, housing numerous intellectuals who generate ideas derived from limitless sources and translate them into concrete results for society’s benefits. Universities are established in response to the challenges that societies face, with the intention that their underlying intellectual engagement would provide necessary solutions to the myriad of problems confronting the people. When a university is not meeting up with these fundamental responsibilities, something is not right. Aside from the traditional role of the academic environment, there are other useful functions that the school is geared towards achieving in contemporary times, such as the projection of a future for a people based on the knowledge they have about the past, inventing tools and materials that are relevant to the present, and developing the students in ways that they can be independent to face the challenges of life with utmost confidence. In essence, experts across different fields of study are considered the social telescope with which people can look into society’s future and make accurate projections. This is their purpose, and it has been their most significant contribution to humankind.
However, it raises a chain of logical questions when schools underperform in these social roles assigned to them. This is because education has been the only choice known to humans from the beginning of time in developing themselves and the society. In Africa, there has been a barrage of questions raised about the importance of universities, especially when compared to other continents. Africa is unarguably lagging, and there are statistics confirming the underwhelming performances of universities and their academic staffs. When this argument surfaces, two things are likely to be asked or considered, as Olufemi Obafemi did. The first one is to examine the hands, the human capital, in African universities to see if they are lower in intellectual capacity compared to their colleagues in other climes. The second one examines the place of the universities in the country’s political process. Without a doubt, these two factors are important because they mutually determine the time to which people’s educational system would go and the level at which they would be beneficial to their host society. It is almost impossible that there would be no consensus on evaluating the quality of scholars in many African universities.
First, African scholars are not the albatross of African university education. This is because we have had many of them as close friends or colleagues, and we are aware of their adequate transformational capacity and transcendental impact when they migrate to other places for similar engagement. They stand at par with their contemporaries in other climes regarding their intellectual brilliance and enriched intelligence. However, they are victims of a system that frustrates their efforts for political, rather than philosophical, expediency. Underpaid and overworked, the productivity flow of the African intellectuals is crushed and made insignificant. Africa is home to one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, and despite the immediate demand for more capacity-building in the academic front to enable opportunities for a growing number of people, many countries in the continent are unconcerned about the need for a transformative change or improvement in their educational sector.
Obafemi was implicit in his response that the bulk of the blame for the poor performance of the African universities compared with their contemporaries in other climes rests not exactly on teachers but the various government agencies of these countries. Poor environmental conditions are products of the political insincerity of many African leaders. Because of the quest for political recognition, individuals who are offered educational management positions may even be unqualified. Ironically, the same lecturers stuck with the system in Africa miraculously do brilliantly well when they migrate to countries on other continents. This shows clearly well that the problem may not reside in the scholar but in the system itself.
Second, another factor that can be categorized as the reason for the initial point is the flawed policy statements for which many governments in African countries are known, especially when it comes to educational decisions. Apart from South Africa and a few countries in the continent that dedicate a good part of their budgetary allocation to their educational system, many African countries have deplorable financial attitudes to their educational institutions. Their meager concentration of funds to the education sector has reflected their distrust in the capacity of academic institutions to become the problem solvers that we naturally expect them to be. This thinking handicaps us because we have not only sabotaged our collective development, but we have also refused to provide alternative solution-finding institutions to the school. From the budgetary allocation accorded to the African universities, one cannot understand why industrial action is the readied route through which academics advocate for their rights. They have seen it as the leverage for dragging the government into their demands. Naturally, one would consider this a wrong move. However, one cannot but remain grossly flummoxed when one understands the breakneck allocations awarded to sectors with minimal national significance.
Obafemi considered the above factors as endogenous and explained that they continue to frustrate scholars’ efforts in the African universities to make a prodigious impact on the continent’s educational system. Citing several South African universities, he opened the can of an age-long controversy that centers on Africans’ capacity to manage themselves. Apart from the fact that the Europeans extended their stay in South Africa, which allowed them to plan its corresponding engagement, they have also dedicated a substantial amount of their time to the erection of an educational system, laying a foundation built upon in the contemporary time. The exclusion of South African schools on the global ranking statistics would mean that there is no single African university among the top 400 in the world. Even though there are reservations about the ranking system and process, this does not erase the insinuation that African universities are underperforming and have continued difficulty occupying an inspiring global rating position.
When we understand that school is meant to solve society’s problems and that the African schools have not been doing well, we will connect the dots as to why Africans continue to be consumers and not manufacturers. Most of the things imported into the continent are made by trained individuals in their country’s educational system. Therefore, it is worrisome that even though Africa is confronted with unemployment, lack of infrastructures, institutional deficit, among many other myriads of challenges facing the continent, their universities have been so ineffective in providing solutions to these nagging challenges. Observed intimately, one would notice that the numbers of research institutions are comparatively low. While there are different countries where research institutes occupy a significant position in their national and continental politics, saving their people from doom and providing them critical solutions to their existential problems, this has been a problem in Africa because there are few research institutes to undertake this social and intellectual responsibility. Therefore, the absence of these lofty institutions can be categorized under the endogenous factors that continue to limit the capacity of the African university system.
To talk about the availability of research institutes is to address the secondary; the primary is the availability of teachers in the university systems, as no nation can rise above the qualities of its teachers! The private-owned ones, in surprising numbers, now surpass the government-owned university institutions in the early 1960s, which are more in number than the private-owned ones. Of course, this is nuanced ideologically, but it is not rocket science that the ratio of the people who enroll in government-owned institutions is proportional to the poverty level of the people, which statistically is high in Africa, by the way.
Due to their financial conditions, many Africans cannot afford the private-owned schools even though every parent now wants their wards to acquire university education. Consequently, this overstretches the school system as the ratio of teachers to students remains seriously fearful. The number of students comes at a geometric ratio, whereas the personnel is far below the needed number. It kills the productivity drive of teachers who are incapable of engaging their students as specific academic exercises demand and are also bombarded by unprofitable work. This unalloyed engagement prevents many of them from facing research engagements and precludes their possibility of being awarded needed grants for developmental research projects. Instead of becoming solution finders, they become problems themselves, seeking resolutions from anyone who can provide it.
Obafemi remarks that the exogenous albatross of the African university education can be observed in the contextual imbalance criteria used for the ranking system―a political feat meant to reinforce the West’s pessimistic assumptions against Africans. He laments, however, that Africans allow the West to do this because of the attitude they show to their educational systems. For instance, international academics’ attraction is impossible in an academic environment where the lecturers are underpaid and overworked. The encouragement to function maximally in this form of environment would be impossible. The effects of this are far-reaching, one of it being that the multicultural and multidimensional educational contributions would not be achieved. This is coupled with the fact that it would deny many of these universities the opportunity to create expansion.
As the world continues in its engagement, more changes are needed to answer modern time demands. Scholars must rise to the occasion of transforming the African academy. Obafemi is forward-looking, and his contributions to the status of African university education are impressive. As a distant observer, the rot in the educational system cannot be difficult to spot given the wide-ranging effects it has on developing versatile products that would have used their intellectual excellence to improve the country’s condition. The failure to produce intellectually-informed minds expected to offer pragmatic solutions and a logical way out of the myriad of challenges facing the continent is a powerful indication that African education is heading in a tragic direction. To deny that these problems are capable of wrecking the continent is to compromise the moral standards expected of an average individual deliberately. The situation is daring, the rot is glaring, and the consequences are devastating. However, solutions to a problem usually take different approaches and dimensions. The way out of the said challenges lies in consolidating individuals and government’s efforts to be effectively defeated.
Apart from the necessity of having a clear blueprint for developmental progression, African educational planners must identify what works for them and the beautiful ways of achieving their predetermined objectives. Education in the continent is unique for both historical and political reasons. Historically, the pre-colonial African education system was an inclusive one where different agencies of socialization were actively involved in the development of the students/learners. This reinforces the place of communal and cultural upbringing in the development of a child. Even when we are not contesting that the contemporary world’s education system has surpassed this traditional method, we are unpersuaded to believe that it is challenging to integrate this conventional system into the current techniques. Such thinking would delegitimize the African epistemological terrain and affirm the assumption that their educational infrastructure is inferior. Once we agree that all individuals, including those in government and academics, have their roles in its revival, we would begin to think inwardly and creatively at that.
This brings us to the contributions that someone like Obafemi has made as far as the Nigerian education system is concerned. Even though each country’s political system usually interferes with how things work, we cannot still deny the reality that in every dispensation, there are academics who serve on various committees at different levels, such as the Senate and Council. These representatives can speak truth to power. Academics within this said committees and groups, just like Obafemi has done on many occasions, are expected to provide expert knowledge and information when decisions about the educational system or curriculum are made. It is incumbent on these representatives to take an uncompromising position, especially regarding the debates that would facilitate expected progress for the continent’s educational system.
Obafemi has contributed his quota serving in various capacities as a member of TETFUND, the National Universities Commission (NUC), Presidential/Ministerial Education Retreat, and many more. He must have offered well-informed advice to the government on how to revamp the system. An academic in groups where vital decisions are made add to the African university education system’s prospect because he could offer them expert advice on the issue under discussion. As a member of the NUC committee, taking the step to design the country’s curriculum is a significant contribution Obafemi is making to the educational system. Many of the groups that he belongs to are dedicated to developing research institutes and making available the needed fund for people to work with. Apart from being in these various groups, he can be accredited to visit universities to monitor their progress and examine their activities. These are among the different ways his generation is making reasonable efforts to change the narrative of the African educational system. Once people like him make notable efforts to expand the frontiers of knowledge in the continent, subsequent actions would be tailored towards the maintenance of what has been introduced. For now, the area of personnel development, research, and outstanding teaching will move the education system forward.
Toyin Falola is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin
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