Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa

Lene Møller Madsen, co-editor of Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa, talks about the progress of universities in post-independence era Africa.

Today, some 50 years after many of the African countries gained their independence, it is relevant to ask how independent African higher education has become and how capacity building affects education and research at African universities. Has a certain type of ‘African’ university emerged? To what extent are old power relations still reproduced in partnerships between African and European researchers? How do new partners affect the power relations?

These were some of the questions we wanted to address in the part I of our book Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa – the geography and power of knowledge under changing conditions. While African universities share many structural and financial problems, they are also products of specific social, political and economic contexts. They have distinct histories and appreciating these differences is crucial, not least when designing donor driven collaboration. Whyte and Whyte elaborate on their scepticism about the ‘African’ University as a concept, drawing on 25 years of experience with Danish-Ugandan university level collaboration and propose spatially grounded and participatory approaches to university development in Africa, based on specific university histories and contexts. Sithole, Birch-Thomsen, Mertz, Hill, Bruun and Thenya stress that collaboration and participation must be developed on the basis of strong personal relationships, mutual trust, and in informal arenas where synergies at a personal level must be valued as much if not more than those at an organisational level. Kragelund and Hampwaye explore the extent to which Confucius Institutes resemble South-South collaboration in higher education, or rather soft power initiatives of Africa’s Northern partners. They conclude that despite the Chinese ‘equal partners’ rhetoric, the Confucius Institute is as donor driven as the other partnerships in which the University of Zambia has engaged historically.

Whose knowledge counts? How has the colonial heritage in African school systems influenced scholars in their learning journeys? What is the role of Western thought in present day higher education? Where and how do negotiations of legitimate scientific knowledge take place? These are questions addressed in part II. Nielsen, Gravesen and Jensen show that climate change lead to changes in local power relationships through interpretation and negotiation of legitimate knowledge. The colonial heritage in schooling is also illustrated by Adriansen, Mehmood-Ul-Hassan and Mbow who show how the post-colonial school system in Senegal was modelled over the French system and thus how difficult it is to become independent of the colonial heritage. Madsen and Nielsen explore negotiations of legitimate research knowledge between partners in a capacity building project and how these issues are inscribed in different research and political discourses and hence constitute contested research knowledge. These chapters exemplify how capacity building can be both emancipatory and maintain the exogenous mode of African knowledge production.

How are African scholars embedded in uneven geographies of knowledge production? Who has the power and right to speak on behalf of Africa? How can curriculum be Africanised? And to what extent should human rights be Africanised? These are questions in part III. Sithole presents a personal perspective on academia and ownership to knowledge. She shows how power and politics over knowledge challenge everyday conceptions of identity, scholarship and place. Naidoo, Adriansen and Madsen analyse negotiations over what constitutes legitimate knowledge and appropriate curriculum in a case from South Africa during the years of political rupture and transition in 1985-1990. The case provides new perspectives on the dynamic processes of empowerment and decolonisation. Finally, Kerrigan finds that there is no immediate prospect of African universities being able to provide research environments that permit African legal scholars to fully realise their transformative potential. At the same time, Northern institutions are hampered by their distance, as well as by the legitimacy of their claims to knowledge concerning Africa. Thus, co-production of knowledge remains vital.