Education fit for the 21st Century: What did we learn about an African Education from the LSE’s Africa Summit 2024

By Moureen Mutu Mutiso & Leah Berger

Education is a cornerstone for Africa's growth and development, serving as a critical driver for socio-economic transformation and innovation. How can African education adapt to the demands of the modern world while still maintaining its relevance and connection to local traditions? Providing an education that is locally relevant, yet globally competitive shouldn't be a balancing act. While it is important to embrace global standards in education, it is also important to recognise that Africa has its unique challenges and opportunities. This means that African education should not only focus on imparting academic knowledge but also on developing practical skills and fostering critical thinking. African education should not be separate from the African context, but consider the different circumstances faced by each country.

In line with the theme "Education fit for the 21st Century," join us in celebrating Africa Day by engaging in conversations and sharing insights on the future of education in Africa. Our team at Pharo Foundation recently attended the Education in Africa Panel: LSE Africa Summit which had a panel discussion on the Decolonisation of African Education. The panel participants were Professor Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis, Ms Adetomi Soyinka, and Senator Asuquo Ekpenyong, moderated by Professor Tim Allen.

Professor Emnet Tadesse spoke about his belief that an African University doesn’t actually exist in Africa today. Whilst this is an extreme point of view, it is true that many African education institutions are reflective of a European epistemology, they favour a European way of thinking. The panel participants echo this thought with evidence that many people believe that Universities were introduced to Africa by colonial powers. And whilst it is true that colonial powers such as the UK built universities in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda as a part of a colonial development programme, these were not the first, nor the only institutions of higher education in Africa. Sankore the university within Timbuktu in Mali is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world as it has been around since the early twelfth century. Some references suggest that it is older than Oxford University. There were many institutions of higher learning in Africa before colonial powers came, however, the knowledge learnt in those higher institutions was not appreciated by the colonial powers. Today we see a reality where institutions of African education have been replaced with foreign curriculums and favour euro-centric learning.

Beyond the necessities needed for a good education such as well-trained qualified teachers, access to early childhood education, and a foundation in numeracy and literacy skills, perhaps one of the most important factors is giving our students contextual awareness. Professor Emnet Tadesse and Senator Asuquo Ekpenyong, who is the representative for the Cross River State in Nigeria, emphasised that African education institutions must stop applying the “copy, paste” concept. How can we expect African pupils to become passionate about the history of Victorian England before they have learnt the power of their own country’s history? We deprive students of important knowledge when we take foreign curriculums and use them to educate African students. We need to prepare our students from a young age by incorporating African cultural and historical lessons into the curriculum. This will allow them to better understand their heritage and the context of their education. Lebawi International Academy is one example of a school that provides locally robust education and globally connected students. They demonstrate that providing access to resources and materials that are relevant to African cultures and perspectives can also help students grasp an authentic and home-grown education. This can include using literature, art, and media created by African authors and artists. Finally, involving local communities and elders in the education process can provide valuable insights and perspectives that can enrich the learning experience for students.

There are also many efforts being made to improve access to education and promote critical thinking among citizens. Building stronger education systems at a national level entails African governments aiming to strengthen existing communication channels and coordination systems so that education stakeholders can share feedback and suggest improvements. A good example of this can be seen in the case of Addis Ababa’s ECD programme. The Mayor of Lusaka in Zambia, Chilando Chitangala said: “This is happening here in Addis Ababa, done in an African way. I think it is very encouraging because it lets us know that we can also do it. We are very impressed and inspired with how Addis Ababa has rolled out its Early Childhood Education here under the government. It is now upon us leaders to go back home and present to our central governments that we need a policy to develop early childhood development programmes in all schools. I am not one to want to replicate exactly what the Western world has done. I would like to learn from the Western world, but I would like to implement it the African way. The implementation of these programmes should be African because that is what will be accepted by us and our people. We can do it on our own, we can actually implement it the way that our people will understand it, by using a bottom-up approach, which is getting the information for context from the people at the grass root level and then implementing it at the local and central government level.”

Beyond this, another critical debate which was addressed by the panel was the politicisation of education. Participants were curious to find out whether there are cases of African Education purposely being held back by governments so that educated individuals can’t challenge their leadership. While some may agree, it is difficult to make a blanket statement about African education as the continent is made up of many different countries with varying political systems and educational policies. However, there have been instances where governments have restricted access to education to maintain their power and prevent educated individuals from challenging their leadership. This scenario is not a new development, we can see it being used in Ancient Egypt where literacy was restricted to the elite ruling class in order to maintain the power and influence of the Pharaohs and their administration. Furthermore, during the colonial era, European powers often restricted education and literacy amongst the native population in their colonies. This was done to maintain control over the colonised peoples and ensure they remained oppressed and unable to rise. Today, governments or ruling elites sometimes withhold education from certain ethnic or tribal groups to maintain division and control. By keeping certain groups marginalised and disadvantaged they can perpetuate their own dominance. One example of this can be seen in the case of Sudan pre-2005. The government in Khartoum was accused of marginalising and discriminating against the Southern Sudanese population. Schools in Southern Sudan were underfunded and lacked basic resources, whilst those in the North were well functioning, leading to low literacy rates among the southern population compared to the North.

How can African institutions provide an education that is locally relevant and globally competitive, one that is producing truly outstanding and respected African Scholars? In today's interconnected world, countries are increasingly competing against one another for economic, political, and cultural dominance. Education is a key driver of competitiveness, as it equips individuals with the skills that are necessary to contribute to innovation and economic growth. For Africa, it is crucial to develop an education system that prepares its students for the demands of the global economy but also for the challenges faced locally. At Pharo we have learned that to do this we must strike a balance, Pharo schools offer a dual curriculum that is a blend between the local/national curriculum of the native country where the school operates with a well-established and international curriculum. By leveraging both curriculums and the use of technology we provide our pupils with the opportunity to be exposed to alternative and sometimes conflicting ideas and encourage them to inquire and identify prejudices, omissions and social-cultural biases facilitating their search for truth and facts and developing their critical thinking skills. Furthermore, by leveraging technology, African education can provide learners with access to a wider range of resources, create opportunities for collaborative learning, and prepare students for the digital economy.

To compete in the modern world, African education needs to collaborate and partner with other nations and organisations. This means looking within African schools and learning from each other as Mayor Chilando Chitangala suggests. This includes establishing exchange programs, inviting educators and experts to share their knowledge, and participating in regional and global initiatives. By leveraging the resources and expertise of other nations, Africa can accelerate its educational development and contribute to the global exchange of ideas and innovation. In this global perspective, Pharo Foundation has funded scholarships for its students to undertake a university education in multiple countries, from Turkey to the U.S. We also have encouraged our Somaliland students to go and study in Ethiopia and a number of them have been offered scholarships from the Ethiopian government.

It is important to note that achieving this vision requires a sustained commitment from governments, educators, and other stakeholders. Together, we can create an education system that empowers African individuals and prepares them to compete on a global stage. The future of African education could lie in striking a delicate balance between global standards and local relevance. While embracing international curriculums is important for competitiveness, it's equally crucial to infuse education with African cultural heritage and history. The discourse on decolonising education underscores the need to reclaim indigenous knowledge and perspectives. Initiatives like Pharo Foundation's dual-curriculum approach demonstrate a viable strategy for nurturing globally competitive scholars while honouring local contexts.