African Higher Education: A Challenge to America

Not yet thirty-one years of age, TOM MBOYA serves on Kenya’s legislative council and is one of Africa’s most dynamic leaders. He held various posts in the union movement until 1953, when he was elected general secretary of the Kenya Federation of Labor.The need for higher education in Africa,” Mr. Mboya says, “was dramatically revealed last summer, when, on the date of its independence, the Congo found itself with a total of eighteen college graduates.”



ALTHOUGH not an educator, I have in recent years spent more and more time thinking about education, urging the organization of colleges in each of the East African territories, and sitting on Kenya government and other official boards selecting African students for training in India, Israel, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. Last year I came to the United States to attend a conference sponsored by the Phelps-Stokes Fund and the Fund for Tomorrow on higher-education needs of East and Central Africa, and to urge Americans to support the “Airlift-Africa 1960” program of the African American Students Foundation.

The African directors of this cooperative effort between private American citizens and African nationalist leaders are Julius Nyerere, Prime Minister of Tanganyika, Joshua Nkomo of Southern Rhodesia, Kenneth Kaunda of Northern Rhodesia, and myself. With the help of a $100,000 grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation in 1960, 295 students from five East and Central African countries, arriving in four chartered planes, began their courses of study in 181 colleges and schools in 41 states and Canada. This brings to more than 500 the number of students we have sent to America since 1956, far exceeding all official programs combined.

The need for higher education in Africa was dramatically revealed last summer, when, on the date of its independence, the Congo found itself with a total of eighteen college graduates and lacking the services of a single Congolese doctor or lawyer after eighty years of Belgian rule. Although the deliberate suppression of education by the colonial rulers went further in the Congo than in most other parts of colonial Africa, the problem is a general one.

This is not the place for a detailed review of the educational policies of the various colonial powers. A few generalities will therefore have to suffice. The French set up few schools, but very good ones, and they allowed a handful of the most successful graduates to go on to the Sorbonne and demonstrate that it was possible for an African to become an educated Frenchman. The Belgians probably ranked first in technical education, but last or next to last in everything else. There is no higher education whatsoever in Portugal’s African colonies. In the Union of South Africa, more Africans have, in the past, had access to education, including higher education, than is generally realized; today, South Africa is the only country in the world which is turning the clock back and restricting such access.

The British in West Africa, where they did not have local white settlers to contend with, have probably done best of all in general education, including the university level, although not so well in vocational and technical education. But the significant dividing line, for the rest of the continent, is that which separates the highland territories of East, Central, and South Africa from the tropical West; the countries with permanent European settlements from those without them; the dependent areas from those which have won their independence.

The West African countries did not have to endure segregated facilities. Their educational budgets did not reveal the flagrant unfairness of racedetermined appropriations which one still finds today in non-self-governing, white-settler-dominated Africa. As V. K. Krishna Menon once put it in a United Nations debate on Tanganyika:

In the field of education, a European child costs the administration £223 a year, an African child costs £8-5-0 a year, and an Asian child costs £31 a year. I am sure it is not contended that the European child is so uneducable that it requires thirty times as much effort to teach him.

The current Kenya government development plan for 1960 to 1963 envisages the expenditure of £1,068,499 on African education, £479,000 on European education, and £616,800 on Asian education, for a country in which there are 7,000,000 Africans, 60,000 Europeans, and 160,000 Asians.

The two principal ways in which those relatively few African students in East and Central Africa who are fortunate enough to begin a primary education are kept from continuing their education are fees and examinations. The cost of 20 shillings per year in fees alone to attend primary school, 45 shillings to attend intermediate school, and 250 shillings to attend secondary school must be considered in terms of the average per capita national income in Kenya of approximately 500 shillings.

As far as elimination by examination is concerned, the following excerpt from the East African Royal Commission Report speaks for itself:

The grading of classes and schools proceeds on the assumption that, of the pupils who enter the primary schools at an average age of about seven years, half will, for one reason or another, have dropped out by the time the end of the primary course is reached. Four-fifths of those who remain will then be eliminated by examination, and only for the remainder will places be found in intermediate schools. Of these, a further 80% will either leave during the intermediate course or be eliminated at the end of it. In other words, out of every hundred children entering primary schools, only ten will be able to find places in intermediate schools. And of those who go through the secondary schools, only a small proportion will be able to pass the school leaving certificate examination: The Director of Education, Uganda, put this number at 200 out of every 200,000 entering the primary school.

Thus, we find ourselves on the threshold of independence lacking adequate numbers of trained men and women in virtually every field. There are too few teachers and not enough teachers’ training colleges; the eager pressure for thousands of new elementary schools is felt everywhere. But the urgency is greatest where the conflict between colonial policy and our needs is deepest — in the field of higher education.

In the face of this need, we shall have to press forward on two fronts: by expanding educational facilities at home and by sending far larger numbers of students abroad than before. Obviously our countries, like all others, will try to provide enough schools to satisfy our needs for trained people and the craving of our children for education.

As demonstrated by the above-quoted budget figures, we are not yet running our own affairs and cannot dispose of the government’s finances as we would wish to. Also, the starving of education in the past has been so thorough, and the gulf between present facilities and needs is so vast, it will be years, even after the achievement of independence, before education becomes for us a luxury rather than a necessity.

In 1959, Kenya produced 654 boys and girls who obtained their Cambridge School Certificates by passing a competitive examination set in Britain and offered in English throughout the Commonwealth. Despite the alien tongue and setting, 157, or almost a fourth, were first-grade passes. (There are three grades of passes.) Some of these young people went on to higher studies at Makerere, in nearby Uganda, the only university college in East Africa today. Others found their way to Italy, Britain, India, Israel, Ethiopia, and Eastern Europe. But a major portion remained in Kenya, awaiting their chances on the AirliftAfrica program to the United States.

WHILE opportunities in these other countries are growing, we are particularly interested in indications that United States interest in African education is increasing rapidly. The response of United States colleges to our appeal for scholarships was considerably better this academic year than last; over a million dollars in student scholarship grants was pledged by several hundred institutions. Washington has also increased its African appropriations, for educational exchange of all kinds, from $151,000 in 1955 to $1,850,000 in 1959.

But most impressive of all remains the response of our own people. The parents have not only supported us but have frequently been way ahead of the politicians in pressing for schools and more schools, making the enormous sacrifices required to keep a child in an institution, which, since it is frequently run by a foreign mission, must charge fees in cash. In a society where subsistence agriculture is still the rule and where ten years ago Africans were still prevented from growing a cash crop like coffee, to provide each student — as we have done — with an average of almost $1000 for books, clothing, and other expenses is an accomplishment of self-help of which we are very proud. The students themselves contributed the pennies and shillings laboriously collected in the fields and pastures, from members of their lineages, clans, or ethnic groups. This is what makes the Airlift-Africa program, in our eyes, a joint program; we were able to do it because of the very great faith and interest and hope that the African people have in the advantages and benefits of higher education.

Along with the growing enthusiasm and support for our program in the United States, there have also been rumblings of criticism. We have been told by educators, government, and the established foundations, by men with long experience in student-exchange programs, that we are going too far and too fast; that our students and the schools which they are attending in the United States are not selected carefully enough; that the financial arrangements made for the students are inadequate; that their programs are not closely enough related to job opportunities for them when they return home; and that we are not doingenough to protect them from exposure to discriminatory practices.

Most of these objections would be well taken if this were just another student-exchange program. But they miss the fundamental point. This is not an “exchange.” We propose to send you. over the next few years, thousands of our young people because our countries desperately need the training which your colleges are able and prepared to give them.

The pioneering, shoestring, crash-through quality of our approach, our free-enterprise solicitation of scholarships by going to the donor colleges directly — these have been interpreted as unwillingness to coordinate our efforts with those of other foundations. Our eagerness to have as large a number of grants as possible has been viewed as a lowering of standards, and political patronage in the allocation of grants has been charged. The occasional financial hardships suffered by some students and the admittedly inadequate follow-up of their academic careers by part-time efforts of our New York associates have all been ventilated in the settler press in East Africa.

While favoring coordination and cooperation with all bodies sincerely interested in African education, I sometimes detect in the American foundation world a surprising lack of confidence in the freewheeling spirit of American education. At the moment, the objections we hear in America are reminiscent of the objections we have been hearing all along from colonial educators and government officials to our demands for vastly increased educational programs. In 1955, for instance, the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas said: “in all spheres in which we have advised or could have influence . . . we have urged that the maintenance of high academic standards must be paramount. . . . The price to be paid for this fundamental decision . . . has been deliberately paid. It has meant that initially student numbers are small; that the staffstudent ratio is high . . . that only a few of these university institutions can be established at this stage.” No doubt this advice was well meant. It simply does not take into account the accelerating tempo of history.

I am convinced that, when our American friends realize the fundamental difference between a program like Airlift-Africa and most other foreign student programs in the United States, what they conceive to be basic objections will turn into minor criticisms.

We want high standards, but we also know that existing programs are colonial schemes which restrict educational opportunities and assume that we have centuries of dependency still before us. A new approach, suited to our deliberately neglected needs, is required to effect a rapid and massive break-through in the colonial barrier to the training of our young people. We do not say that we have figured out all the details of this new approach, and we are ready for further consultation about it. But there is no doubt in our minds that the United Nations visiting mission to Tanganyika was right when it recommended a crash program to meet the needs of African higher education today. Right now the short-term needs are overwhelming; we must break out of the colonial restrictions and bottlenecks of the present system.

I AM told that there is American precedent for what we are trying to do. At the educational conference which I attended in New York in July, I960. Professor John V. Murra of Vassar College pointed to the Army Specialized Training Program of World War II, when the United States met the sudden and urgent need for more Japanese-language speakers, more doctors or electronic technicians by improvising and experimenting with new crash-through educational techniques, some of which, like the linguistic method, have become a permanent part of American academic life.

I would suggest that nothing short of such educational daring will do in the present circumstances of African independence. Through our own efforts and those of American friends, we were able to send 295 boys and girls to your country this academic year. Already we must begin to think in terms of ten times that number for next year. Official State Department programs must be realistically revised; we might ask, for example, why 300 scholarships are provided for the Congo while there is no program for Somalia, which achieved independence at the same time.

In the meantime, some brief answers to the various objections raised may be made. So far as the selection of the students is concerned, they are generally in the upper half of their high school graduating classes and have the Cambridge School Certificate, which most American educators consider to represent a higher level of achievement than the average American high school diploma. The bulk of the schools to which our students are going are, admittedly, not all in the Ivy League, although we do have students at Harvard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Princeton, and Columbia. But they are all accredited institutions, and they should therefore be able, by the standards established by American educators themselves, to impart a good, if not always first-rate, education to any student eager for one.

The objection that our students should not come to the United States unless the expenses for their entire education are provided for in advance portrays a lack of faith in their resourcefulness as human beings. I should not like to see our students denied the opportunity to work during the summer and earn some money, to be dependent upon their own efforts. This is a very important part of their character training. I should not like to see every student coming here guaranteed a four-year allexpenses-paid scholarship.

It is also said that too many of our students begin their careers in small, segregated, Southern institutions and that this may be harmful to the students. But many of them come from segregated schools in Africa, so where is the difference? On the contrary, we are proud that these Negro colleges, many of them struggling against heavy social and financial odds themselves, are coming forward to help us in our hour of need. If these institutions are good enough for American boys and girls, how can American educators seriously contend that they are inferior for ours?

A thorough study of the impact of a United States education on Africans is still to be made, but a good beginning is available in the survey of Dr. Alvin Zalinger of Boston University. He finds that the bitterness expectable in a country where segregation is so deeply rooted in mores is not the dominant aspect of United States experience. “The overwhelming majority are glad they came and are highly enthusiastic, recommend the United States strongly for future Home-country students [and feel] they have received a good education.”

Of course, the program can be improved. What we do not want is talk about “standards,” which will have the effect of slowing down the flow of our students into universities to a trickle. We have had too much of that kind of talk during our half century of colonial rule.

I have frequently been asked what we mean when we speak of a truly African education. We are particularly impressed with the success of the American land-grant, state agricultural, and mechanical arts colleges, which deserve our special attention as we seek to translate our educational experience abroad into the background and context of Africa. We will have to experiment with various systems and structures to produce a truly African type of education. This will take time and can only be contemplated when the American specialists have been trained and have had a few years to think about their problems. After all, American higher education was copied in part from Germany, in part from Oxford; and then you added land-grant, technical, and agricultural colleges, which are purely your own.

The Ghana government has appointed a commission to study the problems of Africanizing the university. It includes not only Ghanaian educators, but also Thomas Hodgkin of Oxford. The commission has been holding hearings, traveling to other parts of West Africa, and will eventually present a report. Some of its conclusions will be useful to East-Central African countries; others will not. In any event, African educators must reach these conclusions themselves. This will be inevitable, since so many European educational ideas do not work in Africa.

One final word. However good or generous an offer the United States is going to make, what will matter in Africa is what the Africans think about themselves and what they would like to do in Africa. For example, the question of priorities as to what fields students should concentrate on will have to be decided in Africa by the Africans. Outside educators may offer advice, but in the end we are going to decide whether we want more clerks or medical experts, street sweepers or engineers. The most Americans can do is to give our youths the chance to come to the United States and get the training; our professionals, the opportunity to do research work and train further in the fields which you have explored and developed. But a truly African type of education cannot be produced in the United States or the United Kingdom. It will have to be produced in Africa.