“Career suicide” in African universities: out of date?

Since it’s never too soon to begin worrying about a future career when researching a PhD here in the UK (with our three year degrees), my friends – some of whom have nearly finished their theses – and I have spent a good bit of time this last year discussing the current academic jobs market in African research.

Unfortunately the main problem seems to be that there isn’t one; the last year has seen a handful of jobs in UK universities for international, imperial and world history, and only a couple specifically for African history. This isn’t a reflection on the priorities of students: the majority of first year students at Durham are studying the “African History” general module that I am helping to teach, and the African Studies masters course at Oxford (and the new version at Cambridge) are huge and growing. With funding changing hugely for arts and humanities subjects, departments don’t seem to be hiring on permanent contracts. Many of my friends are contracted for specific modules at different universities, soaking up their income in travelling between cities and with little control over the courses they teach. American universities are saturated with their own good graduates – whose 5-year degrees are a little bit heftier and more useful (generally) than our very research-specific ones – and while there are a few jobs in Europe and Australia, these also benefit from the large pool of aspiring career academics who have limited options.

Other than dropping out of academia entirely – and university teaching isn’t necessarily where I want to go, but I have really enjoyed teaching this year – a few of us have discussed trying to get jobs in African universities, from Cairo and Khartoum to Nairobi and Makerere College in Kampala. However, I haven’t spoken to anyone who has worked in an African university recently. If you have, please get in touch!

This sounds in principle like a great idea, if you can rationalise and cope with the basic neo-colonialism of going to Africa to teach Africans about Africa – something I’m not sure I’m comfortable with, but I’m also aware of the lack of academic staff in places like South Sudan, and other problems I shall get onto shortly. However, every academic my friends and I have spoken to about this is very hesitant; it’s still regarded as career suicide to take your degree and head off to an African university for a few years.

In principle, this doesn’t make sense, particularly when looking at the history of African studies – and many still-working African studies academics – in the UK. People like Iliffe, Lonsdale, Wendy James and Ranger spent years working in African universities, particularly in the 1970s when times in British universities at least superficially resembled the joblessness and financial constraints of today.

In practice, their point is sensible: why take a good degree and a promising (hopefully!) publication record to an underfunded, under-resourced African university, most likely with serious power cuts, no library resources, no access to current journals and no money for conferences or publications, with vast and demanding student bodies who often have serious training needs, where you are unlikely – if you manage to receive a regular salary at all – to make enough money to live on and visit your family on? Without a good book and several smaller publications out within a few years of your doctorate, as well as extensive Western-style lecturing and teaching experience – with a student body that is up to speed and has access to resources – it’s argued that you’re unlikely to get an academic job in the UK. This looks pretty realistic.

However, I wonder what we’re supposed to do, then, while there are maybe four or five African studies posts at reasonable universities per year in the UK, and with a large PhD studentship that produces far more excellent academics every year than there are jobs. With the spread of broadband and wireless across Africa, the new move by Durham and Oxford to give journal access to their alumni (helping me, and some of my friends, for life!) and the increasing power of African academics and universities to attract funding and conferences – as well as ambitions in new states like South Sudan to attract international academics – are jobs in Africa really as career-ending as they’ve been painted?

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3 Comments

Filed under Academia

3 responses to ““Career suicide” in African universities: out of date?

  1. looking forward to hearing your decision . . . thanks for sharing your blog

  2. I taught for a year at University of Asmara. Loved every minute of it. Wish I had been able to stay longer. Go for it if you get a chance, and keep an eye on the ASA-Uk fellowships which support recent PhDs to teach in African Universities.

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