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Britain’s Colonial Legacy Promotes Unfairness in African Education

Outdated examination models are shutting talented Africans out of university education

September 16, 2016

Outdated examination models are shutting talented Africans out of university education

Millions of African students are left out of university education every year. Many of these students are bright and able to handle university education, but their hands are tied by an outdated, unfair examination.

That examination system was born in the United Kingdom many decades ago. It is no longer relevant to African students who do not have the resources, teachers or proven system to pass these exams.

During colonial times, these exams were meant to get the few bright Africans that could be trained as office clerks and secretaries to serve the colonial masters. Only a few students were needed, and the exams worked well for the colonial system.

In countries like Tanzania, where students only start learning English in secondary school after spending seven years in the primary school learning Swahili, many of the students cannot write complex essays in English.

As a result of their late start in English, they end up failing the tests, and are shut out of university education.

Importance of university education

Consider the fate of John Thorley, a hardworking diligent classmate at the Yele SDA Secondary School in central Sierra Leone. As a mature student, John was serious about his studies. He also worked on the school campus to ensure his financial upkeep.

When we sat for the West African School Certificate/General Certificate of Education exams in 1978, John did not pass a single subject.

Discouraged and with no prospect of staying in school beyond the secondary level, John moved to the nearby village of Rochang to become a famer.

When I returned to our school at Yele, Sierra Leone to teach in 1985, I heard John had died of pneumonia as he had no money to go to the hospital. His fate could have been different if he had passed the African Examination Council exam.

Contrast his life experience with those of us who passed the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE).

Students in the West African countries of Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, have to pass at least five subjects in the WASSCE to become eligible for admission to the university.

With a university education, some of these students become the African elite that live in luxury homes and drive luxury cars, which John never experienced.

Why does this situation persist?

Part of the explanation, of course, is that African universities are already bursting at the seams. Another less charitable reason is that the unfair examination mechanism effectively reduces the pool of applicants.

Families with easy access to an English speaking environment, not least those of civil servants, won’t complain about this stratification of society.

Interestingly, many of Africa’s leaders pay only lip service to the issue. Personally, they are unconcerned with a situation where underprivileged children are stuck in a system that is not good for them.

These typically very well-off families like to send their children overseas to be educated. Even those children from rich families who don’t qualify for studying abroad benefit from the established system. They simply get the exams leaked to them.

While I attended university in Nigeria, one of my roommates really struggled with English. This was surprising since he had passed the WASSC exam with distinction. Asked how this was possible, he told me his father had simply paid someone to get him the actual exams ahead of time.

For Africa to catch up in the global economy, it needs to make the most of its inherent human potential. In consideration of the ever stronger emergence of the global services economy, that means allowing more youth to get university education.

Not the only educational education

Schools should use the students’ grade point average (GPA) from their entire secondary school education to evaluate them. That gives a more comprehensive view of the student’s ability to succeed in college.

My argument here is not to overemphasize university education, but to ensure that it is truly the brightest that get to attend.

There also is no question that the continent should avoid the trap into which so many other countries have maneuvered themselves.

It is also pivotal to promote vocational education. By making it equal to university education, we get more talented kids to take that route.

It is only when Africa sheds the archaic colonial educational system and embraces an innovative system that allows all students to continue their education beyond secondary school that it can compete in the global economy. One exam cannot be used to determine a student’s future.


The colonial exam system isn't relevant to African students who do not have the resources to pass exams.

Students in some West African countries have to pass five subjects in the WASSCE to become eligible for university education.

Africa’s leaders are unconcerned about underprivileged children stuck with a system not good for them.

For Africa to catch up in the global economy, it needs to make the most of its inherent human potential.

Africa needs to shed the archaic colonial educational system and embrace an innovative system.