Autonomy and Accountability in African Higher Education

Higher education in Africa has undergone dramatic changes since the turn of the 21st century: the number of institutions and enrolments has grown significantly,  albeit in varying degrees (increase in both the number of public and private universities, and student enrolment); diversity in terms of institution-types (comprehensive universities, universities of technology, specialised universities); and expansion of  programmes (many institutions now offer postgraduate programmes) and in many countries, most importantly, various changes have occurred in the higher education - the state nexus.

The reforms and changes mentioned above have generated a lot of interest in questions ranging from university compliance with the set requirements before they can start operating or introducing new programmes to quality assurance mechanisms and How is the performance of these institutions assessed? These questions speak to autonomy and accountability. As important social institutions, universities are required to demonstrate responsible actions both to internal and external constituencies (accountability). Equally, they also need a degree of freedom to steer themselves (autonomy) in order to function effectively and pursue their mandates unhindered.

The history of higher education in Africa is replete with various kinds of government involvement in, and regulation of, higher education, mainly through legislative processes, ministerial decisions and ad hoc regulations (Fielden, 2008), with various implications for university autonomy. The evolution of university autonomy has neither been linear (from less autonomy to more autonomy) nor homogenous across the continent. It is characterised by variability both within and across countries. Nigeria and South Africa provide interesting insights on the chequered history of university autonomy in Africa.

The 1970s through to the early 2000s were a challenging period for university autonomy in Nigeria, especially during the various periods of military dictatorships. The relationship between the state and Nigerian universities during this period can be characterised as one of state control and interference. The various military dictatorships increased their control of universities by, inter alia, eroding the powers of university councils as the statutory employers of university staff and those of senate as the supreme organ in academic matters. In 1975, a decree was promulgated which, among others, gave the Head of the Federal Military Government power to appoint and remove vice chancellors, a responsibility that hitherto belonged to university councils (Onyeonoru, 2008). Over time, the role of the university Visitor (also the head of state) evolved from a largely ceremonial one, to one whereby he was empowered to intervene and interfere in the routine administration of universities. Vice chancellors increasingly became accountable to the head of government (Federal or State) instead of the university community. The erosion of university autonomy in Nigeria persisted through the 1980s and 1990s. Several positive changes have however since been registered. In 2003, an amendment to the University Act provided for improved autonomy. The Visitor’s administrative powers, for example, with regard to the appointment of vice chancellors, were reverted to university councils, and the involvement of statutory bodies such as the National University Commission (NUC) and the Joint

Accountability in higher education constitutes both externally and internally driven initiatives and processes, which generally seek to steer institutions of higher education in line with certain ends, ideals and even obsessions, for example, quality, research, relevance, equity, internal and external efficiency, among others. Internal accountability can be an inherent feature of universities. It literally refers to universities being accountable to themselves or, as described by Trow (1996), academic accountability. Globally, African universities included, higher education institutions have established structures, systems and processes to guarantee internal accountability. These include senate, graduate schools, and research committees.

Universities operate in a context of interdependent relationships with various stakeholders, for example, governments, professional bodies, and national and international organisations. These interdependent relationships vis a vis the need to maintain trust and confidence, have led to the establishment of various external accountability mechanisms. As Wangenge-Ouma & Langa (2011) point out, the various external accountability mechanisms that have been implemented in African higher education systems are inextricably linked to the history of higher education on the continent, its promise and crisis, the encounter of the state or more specifically, higher education with global forces, its relationship with market forces and obtaining national socio-political trends. At Uhuru, for example, the newly independent African states looked at higher education as one of the essential elements of economic and political revitalisation. Consistent with this view of the university, accountability was characterised mainly by public expectations about universities as engines of development. This was not only supposed to be realised through the preparation of candidates for positions in the civil service, for industry and the professions, but also through the development of curricula reflecting national priorities. Recent changes in South Africa show how major shifts in the macro political context lead to changes in the higher education accountability regimes. Higher education in apartheid South Africa was generally geared at supporting and maintaining the apartheid project hence, following the collapse of apartheid in 1994, the key driver of accountability in higher education in South Africa has become transformation and development, the overriding policy imperative of the post-apartheid state (Wangenge-Ouma & Langa, 2011).

The challenge of quality is probably the greatest driver of external accountability in African higher education. The tremendous expansion of higher education systems on the continent have not often been matched with a concomitant increase in resources. It has been claimed that generally: the quality of higher education in a number of African countries is suspect; curricula are irrelevant, often producing skills that are tangential to the continent’s development needs and challenges (World Bank, 1986, 1988, 1994). Not infrequently, African universities have been castigated for apparently failing to adjust their curricula in response to the needs of industry, business and the professions (Aina, 1994; Ajayi et al., 1996; Neave, 2003). Various external accountability mechanisms have since been implemented across the continent to ‘fix’ this challenge. Some of these mechanisms and other external accountability mechanisms are discussed below.

In many African countries, it is a statutory requirement that public universities submit accountability reports to their governments. In South Africa, for example, Universities are required to supply various reports and data to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). These reports address two key imperatives of accountability, namely, (1) that institutions account for their expenditure of public funds, and (2) that institutions demonstrate how they have met national policy goals and imperatives (Republic of South Africa, 1997). These reports have the government to gauge institutional performance, financially and administratively. South African universities also submit audited data on staff and student numbers, number of graduates, research outputs and space and space utilisation. Some of these data are utilised to determine funding for individual universities.


News Date: 
Wednesday, November 10, 2021