Africa’s Colonial Education System

Thousands of Africans graduate from higher education institutions each year and are yet still underemployed or even unemployed. Most parents, however, still hold hope that their children will receive a quality education to the point that these parents give up their wealth to ensure that they do.

So what’s wrong?

Something, however, is clearly not right in the education system and the outcome that is occurring. There’s significant growth potential in African economies and, in fact, positive economic growth is being reported in numerous countries. New graduates, however, are struggling to find their meaning and purpose to their higher education in these very economies.

Agriculture is at the centre of many African economies. However, there are a higher number of graduates trained in other areas. The fact that there is a such a misalignment of skills and market demand is puzzling. The colonial system is continually having to deal with the fact that less than one in five students who enter the first grade will go on to higher education and apply that education to their job.

The new settler governments established the colonial education system. The small number of Africans who were educated in these systems were educated with the purpose of assisting white settlers, which explains why the majority assumed such roles as clerks, in supporting positions. Yet, they continue to use the same education systems that oppressed them to educate free people.

Earliest schools

The earliest schools for Africans included Lovedale in Malawi and in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Uganda’s Makerere College, Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, and Achimota College. By the 1930’s, only these schools provided education that ensured university entrance.

The Free Church of Scotland, which had already founded Lovedale, also established Fort Hare University College. From 1923 to 1936, four students per year, on average, were awarded degrees from Fort Hare. Two of three students, on average, were awarded degrees from Fourah Bay College, an institution that worked in conjunction with the University of Durham.


Many Africans desired to continue their studies overseas. By 1913, around seven doctors employed in Nigeria had received their training in England. In the 1920’s, there were around 60 lawyers working in Nigeria and Sierra Leone who had had training in London. From 1905-1940, around 12 French West African students had passed degrees and there were just two black lawyers working in that region by the 1920’s.

Africans were being influenced to continue their education in the U.S. due to the American missionaries in Kenya and South Africa. In the first part of the century, over 150 black South Africans, and some Nigerians and Maasai went to the U.S. to study. A higher number of them opted for religious studies.

In the 1920’s, a numbest of Africans went to Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, including Kwame Nkrumah and Nnmadi Azikiwe, two men who later achieved the feat of being Presidents of their countries. Many of the Africans who received education abroad ultimately went on to contribute to the struggles for national independence and self-government.