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Mission as Theological Education in Africa 6: Academic Challenges in African Universities


This is a report on R. W. Johnson’s assessment of African higher education in his African University: The Critical Case of South Africa and the Tragedy of the UKZN.[1]  This is a different matter, of course, from lay education and ministerial training.  Yet it is relevant at several levels.  First, in the West, ministerial training has largely been tied to academic models associated with the university system.  One can already find this trend in the Middle Ages as monastic orders tied their training to, for example, Oxford and Cambridge universities in England.  The relationship of ministerial training and university education is presently a question also facing African countries, whether students seek that training within the university or under the validating or accrediting purview of the department of education and universities.  As theological education became possible in the post-communist world of Eastern Europe after 1989, various churches eagerly pursued Western, academic models for theological education.  As African churches continue to develop quality theological education, one of the burning questions to ask before things go too far is whether the academic model of the university is really a good model for the Church’s training of persons for ministry.  That discussion, in part, also has to do with the ‘health’ of academic institutions in Africa.

To be sure, the Church does need academically trained scholars who know Greek and Hebrew, the history of the Church and its theological traditions, and the ability to engage the dialogue of higher learning in general.  How are the Church’s scholars to be trained—in theological colleges with confessional commitments or in university programmes guided only by academic criteria?

The University in Africa

So, a look at the state of university education in Africa is helpful in considering a mission focus on theological education for the African Church.  Following are points taken from Johnson’s African University; the points are my own list from several chapters in this brief work.

Globally competitive university education in Africa: Universities have been in steady decline in the post-colonial era in Africa.  4 universities on the continent are listed in the top 400 universities of the world: University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, University of the Witwatersrand, and Cairo University—the 1st three being located in South Africa.  All four are threatened with decline, and those outside the top 400 list are also facing decline.

Language: Universities concerned with post-colonialism and therefore trying to teach in local languages have not prepared top ranking students.  There is a need to prepare for global interaction at the higher academic levels—in Africa, education should be in French or English.

Primary vs. Higher Education: In 1986, the World Bank pressed African countries to invest in primary education.  This is now viewed as a major mistake: shifting resources away from higher education has led to underdevelopment.

Foreign Study: A 2010 report, Financing Higher Education in Africa, criticizes sending students abroad.  On average, 18% of all expenditure on higher education has gone to this program, and awards are typically given to privileged social classes rather than the academically gifted and qualified.  Aid external to Africa contributed $600 million for higher education in 2002-2006, but less than 30% ever got to Africa.  The other 70% was spent in donor countries for Africans studying there.  This means that the money has not gone to develop higher education in Africa.

Return to Africa after Study Abroad: African students are more likely than others to stay in the countries outside Africa where they studied rather than return to help their countries.

Development of African universities: Fast and new development programmes in the post-colonial era included opening university education to larger numbers.  This democratization of education—an affirmative action plan—has greatly reduced quality.  Numbers of students grew from 2.7 million university students in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006.  This meant an increase in expenditures that put universities in worse situations financially due to the need to build new buildings, expand libraries, diversity research, increase faculty size, etc.  Faculty also had greater tasks in administration and teaching that kept them from research.  This further meant that qualified professors often sought teaching opportunities abroad.  Now, less than 20% of faculty have doctorates in African universities.  One has to ask a question that sounds elitist—but then, is higher education not, by definition, elitist?  Would not fewer, better trained students contribute more to the development of a country in every area than a large number of poorly educated students who have the dignity of a degree without a quality education?  Post-colonial African countries have at times sought to establish new universities to create a legacy for the new leaders.  The proliferation of campuses divides the limited assets a country has for education and produces mediocre and poor programmes.  It also undermines any leading university in the country: instead of building on an established university’s strengths, the post-colonial government diverts funding elsewhere.  Finally, post-colonial governments have seldom appreciated the relationship between higher education and development within the country.

The State of Higher Education in South Africa

R. W. Johnson next turns his attention to universities in South Africa, where the university system was strongest on the continent during the twentieth century but where it is, in his view, in decline since the 1990s.  If so, while one may wish to turn to South Africa to build on a solid educational tradition for all of Africa, one quickly realises that the university system in that country is under great stress.  Following are several points taken from Johnson.  While specific on occasion, they nevertheless raise important issues for university education in post-colonial Africa in general.

Politics and Education: The Minister for Higher Education and Training in South Africa, Blade Nzimande, has intervened at the level of a local university, disciplining faculty and staff at the Central University of Technology in 2012.  He sought to extend his powers when a court ruled that he had superseded his authority.  This raises the concern of personal power versus policies and procedures and academic autonomy.

Financial Corruption: At the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (once a strong university but now an allegedly failing institution), the Vice-Chancellor’s salary in 2012 was the highest in the land, while hundreds of contract staff went unpaid for months.

 Social Engineering versus Academic Excellence: The University of Cape Town has instituted racial quotas for admissions, thus privileging the previously oppressed minority but at the expense of academically stronger applicants.  The medical school at Stellenbosch University has been told to embrace the values of diversity, equality, and transformation—meaning not only in admission policies but also in teaching in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.  (There are no medical textbooks in Xhosa.)  Also, faculty appointments go preferentially to black professors.

Collapse of Primary and Secondary Education: According to the World Economic Forum‘s Global Competitiveness Report (2011-2012), South Africa rates only 127th in the world in educaation. (The 2015-2016 report gives it the same rank out of 140 countries.  Zimbabwe, an African country on the verge of some form of major unrest, is, nevertheless, ranked 47th in the world.)  Yet the South African government has insisted on opening universities to increasingly more students; the Minister for Higher Education and Training has the goal of quintupling the number of university students by 2030 and to gain state control of admissions at universities.  This inevitably translates into a programme of requiring acceptance at the university level of large numbers of poorly educated students.

Financing Education: The Minister for Higher Education and Training, the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, and the South Africa Communist Party want all education to be free.  (Note: this was written before the destructive campus protests in 2015 and 2016 at universities around the country calling for reduction in, even free, tuition.)  Making matters worse, the SA government’s support of universities has declined.  Two new universities were opened, however—Sol Plaatje University (Northern Cape, opened in 2014) and the University of Mpumalanga (opened in 2014).  Universities are trying to build up private endowments to survive the dissemination of funds for higher education among more and more universities.  Yet, when Wits gained a surplus of R100m in 2011, unions insisted on raising wages and argued that no university should make a profit.  As the ANC party took power of the government, they claimed that tribal universities (institutions started in the homelands under the Apartheid government) had been historically underprivileged.  Therefore, the government diverted large sums to them, weakening other universities.  Three have collapsed and are under administration (Zululand, Walter Sisulu and Tshwane University of Technology), and Vaal University of Technology is under review.  South Africa now has 25 universities, but only six are, for the time being, viable: Wits, UCT, SU, Pretoria, Rhodes, and Kwa-Zulu Natal.


Johnson’s analysis is hard-hitting, although it is supported with examples and statistics that seem difficult to dispute.  One only wishes he were able to expand the work.  The argument does need more detail for countries outside South Africa, so the work needs to be considered indicative of issues to evaluate more than final words on any particular institution.  His most hard-hitting comments centre on South Africa and, especially, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (and this report does not cover all of Johnson's analysis).

We might, as of the last two academic years, add to Johnson’s concerns about higher education in South Africa.  The present academic year is coming to an end with rioting throughout the country--more serious rioting and protesting than last year.  Two issues, in particular, have instigated the protests—which have been destructive and even violent on many university campuses: (1) the cost of tuition—leading to a ‘Fees Must Fall’ campaign of the protesters; and (2) an interest in ‘Africanising’ education—which is a rather unclear demand and does not bode well for international respectability in academic circles.  The unrest, however, has been very disruptive for serious academic work, no matter what one thinks of the pertinence of the issues.

The main purpose of this presentation of Johnson’s work is to raise issues about the academy’s relevance for theological education and, in particular, ministerial training.  One conversation that needs to happen is whether Western models of theological education that give the process of ministry training over to academic institutions is advisable either in theory or in practice.  This is particularly an issue in Africa, where there are serious challenges for the academy per se.  Surely there is value for higher level academic theological degrees, at least for scholars in the Church, and, if this is to happen, the hope is that the few strong universities on the continent will survive the social unrest to be able to offer worthwhile degrees.  Preferably, the universities will partner with the Church in one way or another to bring academic strengths and ministerial relevance together.  Still, theological education will always suffer greatly at the hands of any purely academic pursuit, and orthodox Christianity will suffer greatly under liberal theological assumptions—as the West is increasingly coming to realise for itself.  Cooperation with the academy can yield important benefits to theological education at the higher academic levels--particularly in historical, grammatical, and primary source research but also in socio-political analyses of the context for ministry.  As the Church grows in Africa, such studies will be increasingly important.

[1] R. W. Johnson, African University: The Critical Case of South Africa and the Tragedy of the UKZN (Tafelberg Short, 2012).