Rebecca Simson, EHS Anniversary Fellow

Social Mobility in Postcolonial Africa

Rebecca Simson is an economic historian with an interest in social and economic processes of change in postcolonial Africa. Her PhD thesis, titled ‘(Under)privileged bureaucrats?: the changing fortunes of public servants in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, 1960-2010’, studied how three East African governments used their powers as the single largest employer in their respective countries to influence the structure of society after colonialism. It established the extent to which public sector employees dominated the income and educational elites of East Africa at independence and traced how the role and political salience of public employment changed over time. Using long-run data on public employment, pay and educational attainment, it showed that public servants gradually declined as a share of the highly educated and high-earning classes, as the state’s ability to absorb the rapidly growing number of secondary and tertiary graduates waned during the economic downturn of the 1980s and 1990s.

Building on the findings in this earlier work, her postdoctoral research project will exploit the fact that college and university attainment was historically (if less so today), a guarantee of stable, formal employment in many parts of postcolonial Africa. Consequently, the inclusiveness and fluidity of this formal sector elite was in large part a function of how higher educational opportunities were distributed. Using census data, household survey data and educational statistics from roughly 10-15 countries across the continent, she will examine how access to tertiary education has changed over time and why. The findings will be related to current debates about class formation in Africa, and whether class divisions are calcifying.