This article takes the formation and work of the ‘Elliot’ Commission on Higher Education in West Africa (1943–45) to reconsider the roots of British colonial development. Late colonial universities were major development projects, although they have rarely been considered as such. Focusing particularly on the Nigerian experience and the controversy over Yaba Higher College (founded 1934), the article contends that late colonial plans for universities were not produced in Britain and then exported to West African colonies. Rather, they were formed through interactions between agendas and ideas with roots in West Africa, Britain and elsewhere. These debates exhibited asymmetries of power but produced some consensus about university development. African and British actors conceptualised modern education by combining their local concerns with a variety of supra-local geographical frames for development, which included the British Empire and the individual colony. The British Empire did not in this case forestall development, but shaped the ways in which development was conceived.