SPROWT ARTICLE | Dr. Deanne De Vries

Dr Deanne De Vries

Locally Rooted and Globally Competitive

Over sixty percent of the Africa’s population is under the age of twenty-five. Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf describes these youth as not just seekers of change; they are the creators of change. However, the extent to which they will be effective change agents is inextricably linked to the quality of education and life skills Africa can offer its youth to prepare them to be the innovators, the collaborators, the citizens and the leaders that not just Africa, but the world needs.

The challenges facing African higher education are well known.  Only a small handful of students can access or afford tertiary education, there is a shortage of qualified human capital, low research output, financial resources are inadequate, poor infrastructure from physical buildings to digital accessibility, external interventions and politics compromises academia’s leadership and governance systems, and there is a clear mismatch between graduates’ skills and countries’ economic needs.

The number of universities across the Continent is increasing: in 2018, there were 1,682 universities in Africa, up from 784 in 2000 and 294 in 1980. However, in 2018, the continent of Africa was home to 16% of the global population, but only 8.9% of the world’s universities and only 6.6% of the world’s higher education students.

According to the latest UNESCO Science Report 2021, Africa spends only 0.59% of GDP on research and development, compared to a world average of 1.79%. Not surprisingly, the entire African continent, with a population of 1.3 billion, produces fewer scholarly publications than Canada (3.60%), with a population of 37.7 million!

The African Union has therefore officially declared 2024 the “Year of Education,” calling on all African governments to accelerate investment in education which has stayed flat at 3.7% of GDP since 2012.

We know from years of study and experience that for societies to occupy a leadership role in today’s global world, higher education is a crucial and central importance because it builds domestic capacity for state-building, including health, education, law and the economy.

Equally important, it offers a conduit to engage young people and grow crucial skills like curiosity, critical inquiry and respectful dialogue so they can contribute to building a better future for themselves and their communities.


What too many people are unaware of, is the academic and scientific innovations and leadership that came from modern day Africa: from having the world’s oldest and largest number of written languages known to mankind, birthing numerous discoveries in astronomy and mathematics, as well as medicine (autopsies, brain surgery and anesthesia). Today’s music and art all owe their existence to Africa.

Some of the world’s oldest universities are found in Africa. The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 AD, is recognized by UNESCO as the oldest existing degree-granting university while the Sankore Mosque and University, erected in the 1100s AD in Timbuktu, Mali, is the oldest continuously-operating institution of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa needs to reclaim its place as a leader of science, research and the arts. Her young people need to be given the opportunities to once again excel, create and innovate new firsts in the world. The good news is Africa has excelled before in higher education; it has been done before.  To rebuild this educational ecosystem that is fit for today’s world requires a two-prong approach: locally rooted and globally competitive.


In Saleem Badat’s research on universities, he highlights how colonialism profoundly shaped African universities such that even today, euro-centric contexts are the basis for teaching and research. It is time to re-root African universities in the geographical, historical, social, economic and political places of their respective countries. A Pan-African agenda should be promoted; one that is firmly anchored in the values of community and Ubuntu as well as local history, nation-building, development, democracy, equality, human rights, justice, rule of law and regional integration.

African universities need to be adaptive to the ever-changing socio-economic and political environments in which they operate to keep their research and relevance alive in their local and national society. Scholarship needs to be encouraged that promotes economic progress, sustainable initiatives and social equity by fostering employment and social ties among community members. Students should be encouraged to engage with their local communities both intellectually and culturally in order to develop their own intellectual and moral identity as well develop into informed and active citizens.


Africa’s role on the global stage will be determined by the ability of her people to effectively advocate, negotiate, persuade and discuss topics ranging from human rights to security, the economy, war, supply chains, technology, intellectual property rights and more. Africa’s universities need to be the engine for transformation.

This requires technologically advanced and enabled universities that use technology to lower the entry barrier as well as expand both the fields of study and possibilities for global cooperation. Perhaps most importantly, technology opens students eyes to see issues from other perspectives. No longer limited to what they see around them in their communities or what they may read or see online or in movies; students can now hear and see firsthand how climate change affects someone halfway around the world.

Most countries across Africa are already using technology to improve education: from how students learn, to enhancing the skills of education professionals, and even improving the efficiency of the administrative side of education. However, while the opportunities of tech-enabled learning are endless, there are some substantial issues to be considered and overcome in the process.  For starters, access to high bandwidth, affordable data, and tech devices such as laptops or smartphones cannot be assumed. The skills needed to create high quality digital educational material extend beyond just the subject expertise needed; not least of all because Africa is a continent of 54 countries comprising thousands of languages and cultures as well as diverse religions and vast differences of digital literacy amongst the populations.


To achieve technologically savvy universities requires a different mindset: one that promotes cooperation and collaboration – not competition – amongst stakeholders. It is in everyone’s best interest – academia, governments, the private sector, non-profits, civil society, and students – to restore Africa’s prominence in higher education.

The need for collaboration is greatest when discussing the capital required to finance the much-needed improvements in Africa’s higher education. I suggest borrowing a page from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Everyone thinks of the economic capital required for improving higher education – the infrastructure, facilities, technology and state-of-art laboratories and other facilities required to be both technologically advanced and enabled. However, Bourdieu highlights that investments in economic capital cannot realize their potential without also investing in social and cultural capital.

Social capital is the community, the relationships, the networks one builds. In the case of higher education this involves building faculty capacities through more funding for research and staff salaries; collaborative exchange programs with foreign universities; tapping into the diaspora teaching abroad; as well as establishing guest lecturer roles for “professors of practice”. Social capital are also the meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders that universities form to improve themselves. Some of these new collaborations can also lead to new revenue streams, e.g. research grants, private sector collaboration, executive education, short-term certification courses and public-private partnerships.

Cultural capital are the costs involved in growing and sharing the “place-specific” knowledge, experiences and values of universities in Africa, for African students, taught and administered by Africans. This includes reimagining and redesigning curricula so it is inspired by Africa and her cultures, histories and epistemologies. It taps into the local challenges, opportunities and career options students will embark upon after graduation. Cultural capital figures out how to involve students as active participants and lifelong learners; cultivating mindsets for for critical thinking, effective communication, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, problem-solving, adaptability, principled and ethical behavior and resilience.

Perhaps most crucially, raising the three types of capital needed for creating locally rooted and globally competitive higher education institutions requires a shift in the mindset of governments and donors from aid to equitable partnerships, from short-term financial investments to long-term patient capital type investments, and from foreign decision making to local decision making.


Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” –  Nelson Mandela

The world needs Africa and her youth. Every continent in the world is aging except Africa. It is in the world’s best interest to work alongside Africa’s higher education institutions and governments to ensure Africa’s youth are ready for today’s jobs in order to create and execute tomorrow’s solutions.

By working together to created locally rooted and globally competitive universities that focus on local contexts and offer technologically advanced and enabled higher educational opportunities, Africa’s universities will offer the world highly skilled, innovative, employable, ethical and civic-minded graduates.