Myths and Realities of Higher Education as a Vehicle for Nation Building in Developing Countries: The Culture of the University and the New African Diaspora
Seth A. Agbo
The thesis of this paper is that the African university, like its counterpart in the advanced developed world, has maintained a stubborn resistance to change in spite of external pressures and internal transformations. The university strives to remain protected from external interference from the local community and it is unwilling to break the cultural mystique and behavioral codes built over time since the birth of universities in twelfth century Italy and France. When colonies in the Third World started clamoring for political independence, politicians of the West demonstrated to the world that newly independent countries could sustain development if they adopted Western strategies. Two of the strategies, the “human capital” and “modernization” theories became so attractive that since independence in the late 1950s and 1960s, developing nations have placed much emphasis on education as a vehicle for modernization and socioeconomic development. Because the movement to expand educational opportunities in the developing world was strongly tied to economic development and technocratic visions of societal reconstruction, higher education has remained an area in which most developing countries maintain a strong commitment although it continues to fail to produce the desired results. Changes in political and economic environments do not deter governments from continuing to invest in higher education. There is a belief that such an investment would generate direct benefits to the state in the form of providing the necessary high-level manpower and carrying out development-oriented research. Investment in higher education would also in many ways serve the needs of society by rendering various services and advice to policy-makers. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a new wave of brain drain of African scholars—a new diaspora to the advanced industrialized world. In reality, the artificial environment of the African university helps only to serve the interests of the former colonial powers. It is not my purpose in this paper to challenge the strong commitment to higher education. Rather, it is my intention to analyze how the myths surrounding higher education as a sine qua non for development as embedded in the so-called theories of development hold promise for economic and social development in the third world countries in the twenty-first century, and to examine the effects of the new wave of the brain drain of African scholars to the advanced industrialized world.
During the 1960s, when most colonies became independent, governments of the newly independent countries began to establish undergraduate and college-type programs in all fields of education in response to the modernization theory. Universities, especially as they developed in Africa, were on the lines of universities in advanced industrialized countries. These institutions have been deeply embedded in educational philosophies and ideologies whose purpose has been to train and sponsor privileged elites that would take over the realms of colonial administration. Sherman (1990) contends that the African university is a modern invention that does not provide practical solutions to the needs and challenges of its traditional agrarian environment—an environment that is “caught in change from external forces--centuries of economic exploitation, colonialism, intellectual and cultural dominance” (p. 371). Similarly, Hetland (1984) calls for universities to serve their societies by contributing to their countries’ cultural and socioeconomic development and stop being “‘ivory towers’ detached and sheltered from the current problems and immediate needs of the poor countries to which they belong” (p. 72). In this paper, I analyze the...