African Universities

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that African universities face a crisis in hiring and retaining new Ph.D. holders, many of whom choose to go into industry (or NGOs). Fewer than half of University-based academics have doctorates in their respective disciplines. As the article points out, “most institutions have focused on raising student numbers rather than on improving the quality of education and research.”

With very few exceptions, most of the young Ph.D. holders I have met, early to mid-career, work for or receive extensive support from non-governmental, foreign-sponsored institutions. In addition to inadequate institutional support, ranging from lack of effective mentorship programs to the absence of research funds, other structural reasons limit Africa-based academics. I write, here, from my experience of being in Kenya over the past 3 months.

All the easy conveniences that enabled my dissertation—free printing in a graduate-student designated lab, the relatively cheap cost of printers and paper, the very fast internet speeds that let me download multiple files easily and search multiple databases—all of these can be difficult to find.

Internet resources are lamentably bad—the free access JSTOR and other online resources give to African universities, while appreciated, does not work with the available access. I have waited up to 30 minutes for a single PDF file to download and up to an hour for a single PDF file to transmit to colleagues over email. Even sharing knowledge can be expensive.

Printing costs are exorbitant. One place charged me Kshs 15 to print a single page. While this is on the higher side, even a cost of Kshs 1 a page becomes prohibitive if one wants to conduct online research or print a journal-length article, approximately 25-40 pages. Writing a single dissertation chapter, for instance, runs into multiple pages—the online research, the drafts, the copies. Easily between 2,000 to 3,000 printed pages.

It would be grossly unfair to compare the library resources at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with those at the University of Nairobi. UIUC has a world-class, top research library, matched only by a handful of institutions in the US and the world.

But.

While here, I have been looking through Kenyan history for a new project on Kenyan Intimacy, and have spent a lot of time at the Kenya National Archives.

I had hoped that I would have similar experiences at the University of Nairobi library. I could not get into the library. I could not even apply to get into the library. Well-placed sources told me the vice-chancellor has restricted access to students and faculty of the university. In practical terms, international researchers who might travel to Kenya to look at archival material at UON have no access; colleagues from Kenyatta, Moi, Maseno, Strathmore, USIU, Methodist, and other public and private universities have no access. I was told that even foreign researchers who had previously received permission from the government and the university had that permission withdrawn.

University of Nairobi library is closed. Sealed. Blocked. I asked my well-placed source whether official letters of protest from foreign universities might help and he shook his head. The decision is administrative and idiosyncratic, not pragmatic.

Faculty members teach ridiculously high loads, up to 400 undergraduate students in a single class, often without graduate assistants. A colleague here spoke of her MA rather than Ph.D. students, and told me that many want to receive the MA to fulfill bureaucratic requirements. As a result, research projects are often unimaginative and repetitive—the “girl child,” “FGM,” “Poverty in Africa,” not that these issues do not merit attention. However, the idea of higher education as a structure that produces new knowledge is absent. When a North American based friend gave a lecture here on the relation between material culture and symbolism, the students were baffled, unable to make certain conceptual leaps.

Now, all is not gloom and doom.

In what are less than ideal conditions for producing and disseminating knowledge, Kenyan scholars have forged innovative partnerships with other cultural producers, artists, publishers, musicians, journalists, the NGO sector, the informal labor sector, and though the volume of work emerging from Kenya may not always reflect this, interesting, unique, and exciting conversations are taking place.

Faculty may work under trying circumstances, but they work. And the work is fascinating and rich and textured, and has a wide audience.

Here’s a for instance.

In late October, I participated in a workshop on sexuality. Workshop presenters included academics, gender activists, film and documentary makers, editors and publishers. Workshop attendees ranged from those working in sports-based activism (football for girls) to representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK). We had teachers and lawyers and actors and community-based activists in the audience.

The publication emerging from this event—due out in February 2009—will probably run to well over 1,000 copies. Now, this may not sound like much. But this is where it might end up. In government offices, including those belonging to legislators; in NGO offices working in the areas of gender and sexuality; across borders, in Uganda and Tanzania at the very least; in the church; with activists across a broad spectrum of fields.

I have no guarantee whatsoever that it will be read. But one never knows if anything is read. I am not the only academic who has a shelf full of “I’ll get to you when I can” books.

I do not want to create a distinction between, the well-placed article in Critical Inquiry or Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) or African American Review that will be read by 100 interested academics if one is lucky, more if one is famous, and this peri-academic publication that will reach a broader swathe of individuals from multiple sectors. I respect and value specialized academic work too much to argue that one publication “makes a real difference” and the other doesn’t.

My broader point is simply that the very structures that limit the production of new, “groundbreaking” research paradigms in Africa also enable multiple conversations across multiple sectors. And the very scarcity of certain resources also means that peri-academic and academic events are attended and attended well. One workshop had room for 40 participants, and over 70 indicated they would attend, and this number does not count the other interested parties who just showed up, drawn by the topic.

We are curious and, as the jua kali sector proves, we generate new and innovative forms of knowledge all the time. As scholars such as Joyce Nyairo have shown, it might be that our most interesting forms of knowledge production and dissemination may not happen within the universities. Kenya’s knowledge economy thrives and flourishes on matatu graffiti, on street corners, in community-based theater productions.

But to say this is also to ask, then, about the role of our universities. If most of our knowledge is produced and disseminated elsewhere, what role do our universities have in the knowledge economy? What happens to our so-called “best and brightest” when they enter a space that lacks the resources to help them excel?

What happens when our university faculty cannot become scholars? Do not have the time or resources to conduct research and produce new knowledge? What happens when students enter an old, obsolete knowledge economy only to emerge into a world where the very language and concepts force one to learn new knowledge quickly, often without the leisure of student time or the presence of supportive peers?

Certainly, not all forms of knowledge circulate or translate into all other contexts. Many of the US-based arguments I learned and teach in queer studies do not apply transnationally: they would require extensive modifications to even begin to make sense here. Similarly, much of the knowledge produced here does not translate outside of an East African context. Place is key to how knowledge economies function.

Yet, the very structure of the global knowledge economy requires that academics learn to be if not fluent then at least conversant with influential, if not dominant, knowledge paradigms. Kenyan academics must know how to speak to their colleagues across Africa and in Europe and the Americas. We cannot continue to rely on that old, tired “I’m an African” bit so beloved of conference African participants in international conferences who use that opening statement to disengage from the tough conceptual demands being placed on them.

Locating ourselves is an ethical and political act. Disengaging from tough conceptual demands because of location is anti-intellectual.

The structural impediments mean that asking foreign-based Kenyan academics—in South Africa, England, Canada, and the U.S., to return and teach cannot be a solution. At the same time, asking inadequately trained MA students to teach university students deprives such students of the specialized knowledge acquired and disseminated by Ph.D. holders.

Africa cannot continue to be the place of “despite,” where we continually “make it” against the odds. Kenyan universities, in particular, cannot keep boasting about their recruitment and graduation rates all the while stunting the students who attend such institutions. One of the saddest chapters in the yet-to-be-written account of Kenya’s universities is how the so-called intellectual elite, those students who qualified for university with very high grades, found little shade under the tree of knowledge.

5 thoughts on “African Universities

  1. I agree with the standard that you set for Africa in this post.

    And, you should probably know, I shall borrow that phrase sooner or later:

    Africa cannot continue to be the place of “despite,” where we continually “make it” against the odds.

    Hear, hear.

  2. Am saddened by these findings.Many of us want to be patriotic and return home when we finish our studies but such revelations just make it look like we do not have a future at home. My only question now is, could someone or some body please try to bring together all the stakeholders (faculty, staff, student leaders, parents, corporations, government officials etc) in higher education in Kenya so that they may discuss and come up with mutual resolutions to address these challenges?

  3. An interesting backstory from the Chronicle and indeed I concur with Gerald, a grim but accurate assessment of the state of higher-ed in the continent. What would be further interesting are the sorts of incentives VCs at African Universities would be willing to offer to compete in recruitment and retention of recent doctoral-level graduates?

  4. I agree with the author of the article. However, I wish to point out that this should not put off those out there who wish to return. I am a foreign trained young PhD holder that returned to Kenya over three years ago. Though the challenges mentioned are true, i have found satisfaction in trying to be part of the solution around here. I have been able to rise from a mere lecturer to a Senior lecturer to a Dean within the 3 years.

    What i would suggest is that those out there, since you have connections to potential funding organizations and bodies, if you cannot come back to be stationed here, try and establish links between your contacts out there and local universities so that research and other professional solutions can be enhanced. We need to move to the level where Africa starts producing its own products instead of relying on imported everything. Korea, Taiwan and other Asian tigers moved forward by investing in R&D while learning and copying the technologies of the west. We need to do the same and we can start by creating links between Africans out there and Africans in here.

  5. Absolutely!

    We have to think about systems like faculty exchanges, not simply the (very limited, and getting less so) money from North to South, or West to East, but also about how to get knowledge circulating and traveling.

    I’d be happy, with my employers’ approval, to teach a semester on the black diaspora or, preferably, queer studies in a Kenya-based university. And I’m pretty sure employers in the States would be happy to have Africanists from the continent teach unique, specialized classed here.

    How do we make this happen, without depending only or primarily on programs like Fulbright?

    We can also collaborate on joined journal issues, co-edited across nations (Murunga and Nasongo’s is a GREAT model of such collaboration.) So, there’s stuff to do and to be done.

    Some initiative and creativity is all we need, and I think we have both.

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