A map from the past for Africa’s Education systems

by Calvin Ebun-Amu

Throughout history, the provision of education has come in many forms. From one-room schools to the open-air academies of Plato, both the young and old across the globe have been gifted with great scholars, priceless manuscripts, and vast amounts of knowledge. It is in this endless search for knowledge that we take delight. It is in the incessant pursuit of its fruits that history has been made. Like other regions across the world, this pursuit continues for Africa as its states define themselves amidst new trends in technology and growing populations.

Teaching Transforms A Continent

It is ‘all hands on deck’ for the continent and its partners. Agenda 2063 will guide the African Union in ensuring that 70% of all high-school graduates are enrolled in higher education and that 70% of those enrolled will graduate in subjects related to sciences and technology. More and more governments across Africa recognise the need for action. More and more governments and organisations outside Africa are also fully aware of this, and eager to work with African states to shape the future of its workforce.

Although some states may have different ideologies from partners, the growing importance of Africa’s youth overshadows divergent sentiments. Illustrative of the growing desire of external nations to empower the youth is Germany’s education package, which will give a $14m boost to the education sector in Zimbabwe. Already leading the continent with a literacy rate of over 90%, its membership in the Global Partnership for Education has been of great help. Corporations are also involving themselves in programmes that take into account the realities of each distinct African state. Vodafone Cameroon, for example, is to implement programmes at multiple universities in Cameroon in accordance with this ethos.

9%is the enrolment rate for HE in sub-Saharan Africa

Since 1990, significant higher education reforms in Africa have been made. While much progress has been made, the pace of changes in technology and quality control continue to increase the challenges and opportunities in the region. More importantly, Africa’s capacity to facilitate youth education is challenged. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are enrolment rates of 77% for primary, 34% for secondary, and 9% for higher education.

The drive towards producing solutions for the states concerned continues as positive progress has been made with reforms and innovation, causing enrolment rates to rise substantially in the past decade. History has expounded the path for Africa and external regions working to influence the future of education on the continent. The rich history of education systems in the continent may indeed be a map for its future. The future is in the past, and the past is nothing without the future.

History has expounded the path for Africa and for external regions working to influence the future of education on the continent. The rich history of education systems on the continent may indeed be a map for its future. The future is in the past, and the past is nothing without the future.

The Precolonial Era

Founded in 859 by Fatima Al-Fihri in Morocco, the University of al-Qarawiyyin, originally a mosque, has developed into a leading university in natural sciences which now stands as the oldest continually operating and first-degree awarding educational institution in the world. Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, founded between 970 and 972, oversees a national network of thousands of institutions with approximately two million students. The affiliations inherent in these relationships allow for quality control and a sense of pride which incentivises the desire to learn by students. Its programmes included Islamic law, theology, and Arabic.

In Timbuktu, more than 180 Quranic schools and universities made the city of Mali a historic educational centre. Many scholars from around the world were drawn by Timbuktu’s 700,000 manuscripts, windows to the history of the continent and its rich culture. Educational institutions in these regions have undergone several changes. A lot of reforms made showed that modern science and other subjects were not incompatible with the Quran. What undoubtedly remains is the incredible architecture which in many ways captivates the essence of its history in a way words cannot.

Its programmes include Islamic law, theology, and Arabic. In Timbuktu, more than 180 Quranic schools and universities made the city of Mali an historic educational centre. Many scholars from around the world were drawn by Timbuktu’s 700,000 manuscripts, windows to the history of the continent and its rich culture. Educational institutions in these regions have undergone several changes. A lot of reforms made showed that modern science and other subjects were not incompatible with the Quran. What undoubtedly remains is the incredible architecture which in many ways captivates the essence of its history in a way that words cannot.

The Colonial Era

Colonialists had significant effects on early education in Africa. The European Review of Economic History illustrates how missionaries who accompanied colonialists required the Africanisation of the mission in order for the scale of the enrolment expansion witnessed before 1940 to be possible in the first place. They depended largely on the contributions and initiatives of African converts, their communities, and African taxpayers in order to ensure the financial viability of missionary education between 1900 and 1940. One example of this is that of African teachers during the period, who received comparatively lower salaries (about 50 to 100 times lower) than their European counterparts. The ease of collaboration varied by region.

In Uganda’s Northern province, no fewer than 994 registered mission schools existed for a population of 815,000, while in Sierra Leone’s Northern province, only 38 mission schools existed. Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, became the first Western-style university in Sierra Leone. It gave the city its nickname, the ‘Athens of Africa’.

Christian missionaries, both African and European, were regarded with great suspicion in these regions. The culmination of these suspicions may have been manifested during the Hut Tax Wars of 1898-1900, which were directed against not only colonialists but the missionaries, too. Islam and trade Arab connections provided an alternative for Sierra Leonians concerned with the foreign influence of colonialists. Parents, usually those of higher social standing, were able to benefit from Islamic schools, which were more embedded in the cultures which inhabitants of Sierra Leone aimed to preserve.

Uganda’s African Christian converts carried out significant revolts against local leaders to prevent foreign influence, including installing mission schools. It is clear that internal power conflicts were some of the significant driving forces which shaped the history of education in many parts of the continent. Political rivalry and pending conflicts drove many to succumb to the value systems they believed would shape the future of politics in their respective regions. In the Buganda Kingdom, the court’s decision to adopt Christianity as a state religion acted as a catalyst in the expansion and accessibility of mission schools in the region.

French influence in Morocco was achieved with the assistance of natives receptive to the Resident-General of the French protectorate, Louis Lyautey, who had set aside a lot of time to educate himself on Morocco. French influence had a significant impact on the nation’s expressions of art. Hamid Irbouh,

Hamid Irbouh, author of Art in The Service of Colonialism, identifies the function of schools in Morocco’s colonial era as a stepping stone in the hierarchy of power. Guild reforms and vocational teaching methods contributed to the eventual transformation of Moroccan craftsmen into the best in the French Empire. Officials of the General Administration, who were employed primarily for their loyalty, believed strongly in theoretical lessons, which consisted of tracing from memory and prepared apprentices to become skilled workers.

Increases in job opportunities in colonial regions gave rise to incentives to consume Western formal education. The establishment of mission schools in regions was also dictated by the unprecedented health risks that varied by region. Early initiatives in the south of sub-Saharan Africa were less likely to be abandoned.

Quality And Assurance

In many ways, the colonial era set the foundations for education in Africa. A transition in many regions was made from vocational education to more theoretically-grounded curricula. Despite the various conflicts surrounding it, affiliation with colonial mission schools was one of the first forms of quality assurance in African schools. It may not have been the first, but it provided a different grounding for education on the continent.

Government control of institutions in the post-colonial era came with its challenges. Some of the main challenges to quality assurance systems in Africa are human capacity and cost requirements. Operating a national quality assurance agency typically requires an annual budget of $450,000, and appropriately trained and experienced staff. The direct cost of accreditation per institution is $5,200, and, for a program, $3,700.

These costs cannot easily be borne without innovative measures to ease the pressures. Quality higher education contributes to the retention of skilled human capital. Coupled with a high emigration rate, this can cause scarcity of skills which reduces supervisory capacity. It is imperative that improvements are made.

While quality assurance in the education system is believed to be a recent phenomenon, it should be reiterated that quality assurance existed in Africa prior to the colonial era, albeit in varying forms. The rate of change in global standards of education in the new era requires the assistance of technology and further collaborative efforts with Africa’s partners from across the waters.


Free education may not be perceived as a sustainable path in the long term for several African states, due to the rate of growth in the population, which may compound with the pressures of their impending debts. National budgets and cost-sharing structures may play significant roles in reducing this pressure. With the added value of technology, these dynamics may be altered.

The African Virtual University (originally incubated in the World Bank) is now a leader in open and distance e-learning. Its network spans twenty English and French-speaking countries. Regulating online platforms for knowledge transfer will be a challenge. This may provide many e-learning platforms with the time to establish themselves before regulations tighten, however.

Oversight carried out by boards experienced in e-learning may be the best way to provide sound and fair regulation. By ensuring that a reputable mode of regulation exists, more distance learning solutions available in the continent may be received with more confidence, not only by students but also by employers and governing bodies. This will require patience as time unfolds.

Access remains especially important in rural areas, which is why a growing number of schools in the continent are providing distance provisions for secondary pupils. Such efforts to increase accessibility of education are aided by The Open University, which is collaborating with the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) to provide young women with opportunities to partake in weekly tutorial sessions with approximately twenty students, preparing them for school leaving exams.

The Open University has equipped thousands of young women in Malawi and Sierra Leone with enough training to support retention of young women in schools and reduce the pressure of overcrowded classrooms. This could increase the likelihood of young women across Africa progressing to higher education.

Valèse Mapto Kengne and Alain Mingat identified the impact of such changes on student repetition and retention in a sample of 54 countries. The regression analysis (based on countries as units of observation) showed that the proportion of female teachers does not affect schooling and student learning, but it does have a noticeable effect on retention rates of boys and girls in schools.

80%of Nigerian children aged 10+ have access to mobile phones

Handled with appropriate care, challenges regarding the retention and availability of teachers may lead to a reduction in dependence on books. The World Bank states that in Nigeria alone, an average of over 80% of children aged over ten have access to a mobile phone. The need for expenditure on books may lower if greater use of cheaper mobile devices, with connectivity to cheaper internet connection, is encouraged.

Eneza Education, a Kenyan start-up, increases accessibility to virtual tutors for students in low-income rural areas. Students between the ages of eleven to eighteen can easily search Wikipedia by sending a text message or asking teachers questions. The provision of information, as well as community hubs, may reduce the dependence on these measures.

Looking to the future, Nairobi Dev School will equip youths in East Africa with computer programming skills and help them build foundational knowledge in a rapidly changing field. Vocational training may provide the requisite skills to overcome any capacity constraints that may arise.

East Africa

National governments in East Africa looking to gain from economic growth in the service sectors have observed a rapid increase in the number of universities being established. In twenty years, 60 new universities were created, half of them private. From February 2017, University students in East African Community (EAC) states will be able to transfer credits from one university to another with significantly less difficulty.

This will be particularly feasible if heads of states of the region endorse a plan to create a common higher education area. Universities in the region would recognise qualifications from any chartered university, and programmes accredited by higher education authorities in the countries of origin. These developments could increase competition among universities. The free movement of students may help in a transition towards stronger bargaining power of students, thus raising the quality of education.

Language barriers, however, may be an impediment to progress – but also a positive step, encouraging more harmony in the knowledge transfer of languages. The initiative may be beneficial not only for encouraging quality education but also for reducing any pressures on students who may feel the pressures of political instability risks in their regions.

Public institutions may not benefit as much as anticipated due to capacity constraints. Innovative cost-sharing practices may be necessary. Where these challenges arise, opportunities for viable solutions from private entities are birthed. In East Africa, Indian IT companies remain committed to providing a group of students from the East African region with three to six-month internships, under a $23m programme supporting the Indian Trade and Investment for Africa (SITA) project aimed at facilitating trade, investment, and technology transfer between India and East Africa.


China’s significant investments in African states is likely to lead to more positive developments in education in the region. There are over 2000 Chinese companies operating in Africa whose investments create greater incentives to fill skills gaps in the workforce.

30,000Africans received training from China’s ‘African Talents’ programme

Filling skills gaps has been done in many creative ways, encouraged by China’s strategic relationship with Africa. Its African Talents programme trained 30,000 Africans in various sectors and provided financial means for postdoctoral research to be carried out by Africans in China. Corporate partnerships have also helped African universities to expand knowledge and ties. The African Leadership University (ALU), which has pan-African ambitions to provide world-class low-cost tertiary education through a network of 25 campuses, has also been engaging Chinese students and corporates since 2015 to forge long-term relationships.

Chinese students could be a major source of Africa’s international student base. Although African countries remain unexplored as higher education destinations, this could change in the future as stronger ties are made between Africa and not only China but also foreign students who hope to make an impact in the continent. The very nature of education on the continent could be transformed if more local universities are led by the demand of foreign students to create courses to facilitate their needs. The participation of both African and foreign students in these courses prepares both groups for the global village.


Membership of blocs and unions has contributed greatly to some of the recent progress in the African education sector. Taking a note from the history books, it is important for African states to consider the detrimental effects of internal conflicts on the direction of their education systems. Distracting effects of internal conflicts can blind promising nations to their obligations towards not only the development of the youth but also the development of a continent upon which so much of the world’s future economic growth depends.

It is not only a duty to the African youth that must be fulfilled but also a duty to investors in the continent with much belief in the future of Africa, as it progresses towards a stronger position on the global stage. Understanding the cultural influences in each African state will remain of great importance for states and organisations looking to influence the educational system in Africa.

Education within the continent must be sensitive to its cultural implications in order to ensure that students’ pride remain intact. With pride in their heritage, young visionaries may be more confident in turning dreams into reality. They may be more prepared to accept external influences in ways that lead Africa on its path towards strengthening its strategic partnerships on the global stage.

Strategies chosen by each region for education will depend on their respective demands and industries. The number of universities may not be the issue, but rather accessibility, quality, and the experiences of staff. Like any region in the world, continuous improvement is paramount to ultimate success.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Calvin is passionate about the growth of technological innovation and economic development across Africa. He tweets @calvinebunamu1 . This article was first written on market mogul

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