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Decolonizing African Universities: A Roadmap to Transformation

Unlocking the potential of African universities by shedding colonial influences and embracing African-centric education.

By Darius Spearman (africanelements)

_About the author: Darius Spearman is a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College, where he has been pursuing his love of teaching since 2007. He is the author of several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at

Key Takeaways

Colonial InfluenceAfrican universities have been shaped by colonialism, often mimicking European institutions.
Westernization ProblemThe focus on Eurocentric knowledge production needs to be shifted.
Need for TransformationAfrican universities must evolve to meet the needs of the continent.


The story of African universities is one deeply entangled with the vestiges of colonialism. These institutions, initially set up during the colonial era, have often served as replicas of European educational systems.

“Colonialism profoundly shaped modern universities in Africa. It implanted institutions on African soil that were largely replicas of European universities rather than organically African” (AllAfrica).

This has led to a system where the curriculum, administrative structures, and even the language of instruction are often borrowed from the colonizers.

But times are changing. There’s a growing call for these institutions to shed their colonial past and evolve into centers of learning that are rooted in African contexts, values, and needs. This article delves into the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for African universities as they seek to redefine themselves in a post-colonial world.

The Problem of Westernization

Map illustration of Africa highlighting prominent universities with floating graduation caps, representing the academic advancement in the context of decolonization. Overlay text reads "Decolonizing African Universities: A Roadmap to Transformation."
Illustration of Africas map spotlighting major African universities with graduation caps floating across symbolizing the transformative journey of decolonizing education

One of the most glaring issues is the problem of Westernization. African universities have been criticized for being too ‘Westernized,’ focusing on a Eurocentric way of knowledge production. Achille Mbembe, a prominent scholar, points out that this model “disregards other epistemic traditions” (AllAfrica). This Westernization not only limits the scope of what is taught but also how it is taught, often ignoring the rich tapestry of African cultures, languages, and philosophies.

Table: Westernization vs African-Centric Approaches

WesternizationAfrican-Centric Approaches
Eurocentric CurriculumInclusive of African philosophies and languages
Focus on Western AuthorsInclusion of African scholars and texts
Administrative StructuresCommunity-based and participatory governance

The call for decolonization isn’t just about changing the syllabus; it’s about altering the very ethos of these educational institutions. It’s about making them more inclusive, more equitable, and more focused on African needs. “How can they become, instead, African universities that address African needs?” asks an article from AllAfrica. The answer lies in a multi-pronged approach that tackles everything from curriculum to governance.

The Need for Transformation

The need for transformation is urgent. African universities must evolve to become institutions that are by Africans, for Africans. This involves a radical shift in how education is approached, moving away from being mere replicas of European institutions. “How can they become, instead, African universities that address African needs?” (AllAfrica).

List: Steps for Transformation

  1. Curriculum Overhaul: Introduce courses that are relevant to Africa’s socio-economic context.
  2. Language: Include indigenous languages as mediums of instruction.
  3. Governance: Involve local communities in decision-making processes.

The transformation is not just an intellectual exercise; it requires political will and action. It involves diverse actors within and beyond universities, including policymakers, educators, and the community at large. The change won’t happen overnight, but the journey has already begun, and the roadmap is becoming clearer.

The Importance of Place

Universities are not just centers of learning; they are also deeply rooted in their local contexts. This is especially true for African universities, which have a unique opportunity to engage deeply with their surrounding communities.

“Rather than distancing themselves from the surrounding communities, universities need to, in Vincent’s words, ‘actively seek exposure and collaboration – because that is what they are ‘for'” (AllAfrica).

This sense of place can serve as a powerful catalyst for change, driving universities to become more relevant and responsive to local needs.

Table: Community Engagement Strategies

Local PartnershipsCollaborate with local businesses and organizations for mutual benefit.
Community ServiceIntegrate community service into the curriculum to give students real-world experience.
ResearchFocus research efforts on solving local problems.

The concept of ‘place’ extends beyond geography; it also encompasses culture, history, and social dynamics. Universities must become institutions that not only serve their students but also their communities. This involves a shift from a Eurocentric model that often isolates universities from their local contexts to an African-centric approach that values community engagement and local relevance.

Five Key Roles

African universities have a multifaceted role to play in the transformation of the continent. According to experts, there are five key roles that these institutions must focus on: “Promoting critical and democratic citizenship is a fifth role” (AllAfrica). These roles serve as pillars that can guide the transformation process, ensuring that universities are not just centers of academic excellence but also agents of social change.

List: The Five Key Roles

  1. Knowledge Production: Generate research that is relevant to Africa’s challenges.
  2. Skill Development: Equip students with the skills needed for the modern workforce.
  3. Community Engagement: Act as hubs for community development and social change.
  4. Cultural Preservation: Serve as custodians of African heritage and culture.
  5. Democratic Citizenship: Foster a sense of civic responsibility among students.

Each of these roles is interconnected, contributing to a holistic educational experience that prepares students for the complexities of the modern world. By focusing on these five key areas, African universities can become more than just educational institutions; they can become catalysts for transformation and political action.

Theorizing Reality

The transformation of African universities also requires a shift in the intellectual frameworks that guide academic inquiry.

“African universities need to, in the words of postcolonial scholar Mahmood Mamdani, theorize our own reality, and strike the right balance between the local and the global as we do so” (MSN).

This involves a move away from Western theoretical models that often fail to capture the complexities of African societies.

List: Key Theoretical Shifts

  1. Decolonizing the Curriculum: Introduce African philosophies and theories into academic discourse.
  2. Local Relevance: Ensure that research topics are relevant to local contexts.
  3. Global Engagement: While focusing on local issues, also engage with global academic communities.

The call to ‘theorize our own reality’ is not just an academic exercise; it’s a call to action. It’s about making African universities centers of intellectual theorizing reality that are rooted in the continent’s unique social, cultural, and historical contexts. This is essential for producing research that is not only academically rigorous but also socially relevant.

State’s Role

The transformation of African universities is not a task that can be left to the academic community alone. The state has a significant role to play in steering and supervising these institutions. “The state has a major role to play. It must ably steer…” (Premium Times NG). This involves ensuring that universities are properly resourced, maintain academic freedom, and are aligned with national development goals.

Table: State’s Responsibilities

FundingProvide adequate financial resources for universities.
Policy FrameworkEstablish policies that guide the transformation process.
OversightMonitor and evaluate the performance of universities.

The state’s role is not just about providing resources; it’s also about creating an enabling environment. This involves setting up regulatory frameworks, ensuring accountability, and fostering partnerships between universities and other sectors. The state must act as both a facilitator and a regulator, ensuring that universities serve as engines of state’s role and national development.

Political Action

The transformation of African universities is not just an intellectual or administrative task; it’s a political one.

“The African university will be realized neither overnight nor without political struggles that involve diverse actors within and beyond universities” (AllAfrica).

This means that the transformation process will require concerted efforts from all stakeholders, including policymakers, educators, students, and the community at large.

List: Key Stakeholders in Political Action

  1. Policymakers: To create enabling policies.
  2. Educators: To implement changes in curriculum and pedagogy.
  3. Students: To demand and drive change.
  4. Community: To support and hold universities accountable.

Political action is not just about protests and petitions; it’s about creating a movement for change. It’s about mobilizing resources, building alliances, and most importantly, sustaining the momentum for transformation. Universities must become arenas for political action, fostering a culture of activism and civic engagement.

Public Good

Finally, at the core of the transformation agenda is the idea that universities must serve the public good. This is a foundational narrative that must guide all aspects of university life, from research and teaching to community engagement. “Universities must advance the public good as a foundational narrative” (Premium Times NG).

List: Ways to Serve the Public Good

  1. Accessible Education: Make higher education accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic background.
  2. Relevant Research: Conduct research that addresses societal challenges.
  3. Community Development: Use university resources to support local communities.

Serving the public good is not just a lofty ideal; it’s a practical necessity. Universities have a responsibility to contribute to the well-being of society, acting as catalysts for social, economic, and political change. This involves a commitment to social justice, equity, and public good.


The journey to transform African universities into institutions that are truly by Africans, for Africans, is a complex but necessary one. It involves multiple stakeholders, diverse strategies, and a commitment to both intellectual and political transformation. The roadmap is clear: it’s time for action. With concerted efforts from all quarters, African universities can shed their colonial past and emerge as beacons of hope and excellence for the continent.