Africa’s Higher Education Landscape

A recent piece in The Guardian examined Ethiopia’s higher education sector 20 years after the country’s government launched an initiative to push the country towards industrialisation. Naturally, such large-scale development hinges on an expert workforce; consequently, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of Ethiopia’s higher education sector. This has met with mixed results. Some new institutions – the 16 year old Jimma University is singled out for praise – having enjoyed great success, while elsewhere, political agendas, low-quality provision and collapsing buildings mean that the picture is less positive.

The piece is interesting, not only in its scrutiny of the consequences of rapid expansion in a nation’s higher education sector (particularly in a nation not possessed of the resources to pursue aggressive expansionist agendas in the mould of China’s Project 211 and Project 985) and the particulars relating to Ethiopia, but also in that it leads one to consider the unevenness of the global paradigm.

While we will happily argue over the minutiae of changes to the UK or US systems of higher education (not at all to underplay the often momentous ramifications of these minutiae), it’s easy to remain ignorant to developments, challenges and progress made in nations with nascent tertiary education sectors, where changes can be truly life changing, or those moving onto the next stage and becoming globally competitive.

Progress creates new challenges

So, what are the key challenges facing African nations? The most obvious one is, of course, the question of access. According to UNESCO statistics, the current tertiary enrolment rate across Africa stands at just over 12% – well below the global average of 32%. Of course, there’s a great deal of variety across this huge continent. In Egypt, tertiary enrolment stands at 33%. In South Africa, the equivalent figure is 20%, in Ghana and Nigeria it is 14%, in Tanzania it is only 4% and in Niger, 2%.

The lower figures here, however, must be placed into context. Across the continent, total enrolment grew by around 170% between 1999 and 2002, according to ICEF Monitor (referencing a TrustAfrica/Mail & Guardian publication). In numerical terms, that is rise from 3.53 million students in 1999 to 9.54 million in 2012 (the African Higher Education Summit, in March 2015, set a target of 50% enrolment by 2063 – the point at which global participation is predicted to have reached this same level).

This growth is partially the consequence of improved access at primary and secondary level – upper-secondary enrolment stood at close to 40% in 2013, a massive rise from 27% in 1999, while primary enrolment has risen from 83% to 100% (though the quality of this primary-level provision has been called into question).

Of course, the challenge raised by a greater number of qualified students looking to enrol in higher education is that they need somewhere to study. Naturally, the better off can look into studying abroad – a French governmental report released in 2013 found that African students accounted for around 10% of internationally-mobile students (380,376 precisely), 29.2% of whom elected to study in France (South Africa was a close second in choice of destination, on 28.8%).

This is a luxury that isn’t open to all students, however, and thus the onus falls on affordable and high-quality local provision, which naturally demands high levels of investment as well as effective policy and governance – not always easy to come by. In South Africa, it has been suggested that only one in four students who qualify for university would be able to get a place at a university while in Nigeria, it is only one in five applicants, to pick a couple of examples – notably, these are Africa’s two richest countries.

Quantitative improvements in higher education must be matched by quality

When students do manage to get in, the problem then becomes one of quality. Findings from the regulatory body, Inter-University Council for East Africa, in 2014 worryingly found that across Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, well over 50% of graduates were ill-equipped for the workplace. Five new universities approved by outgoing Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan in June have attracted the ire of the academic community, who believe that the resources needed to launch such a large number of new institutions simply do not exist, particularly in terms of faculty. In Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, there are around 50% more students per lecturer than the global average.

Many private institutions have cropped up in response to increased demand, but when we see 66 PhDs awarded between 2011 and 2013 by Kampala International University declared invalid (in a country, notably, where fewer than 1,000 people hold doctorates) one might begin to ask if the administrators’ priorities are not a little more Machiavellian than simply increasing access. Private institutions will soon outnumber public in Africa, so this is of particular concern. Indeed, they already outnumber public institutions by four to one in South African, and seven to one in Ghana, while in Somalia all 40 of the country’s institutions are private, according to the aforementioned TrustAfrica/Mail & Guardian report. While they may be improving access issues, there is also a question of what contribution such private institutions will make to research and innovation.

Completion rates are another issue – a British Council report shows that a shocking 40% of South African students dropped out in the first year of study. Again, it’s worth reiterating that this is one of the most highly-developed and wealthy nations in the continent.

Do branch campuses have a part to play?

One potential solution to a lack of quality provision is foreign branch campuses – though, truth be told, one can see that Africa is not as popular in this regard as more lucrative East Asian or Middle Eastern locations. A recent report from EAIE also shows that branch campuses have somewhat fallen out of vogue with UK universities, so it remains to be seen if this can really be something that tackles the problem on a large scale.

However, there are some examples. The UK’s University of Lancaster has set up shop in Ghana, Middlesex University, also from the UK, has a campus in Mauritius (something of a haven for branch campuses…), while German institution Technische Universität Berlin has a satellite campus in Egypt, to name some of the more prestigious examples. While the advantages of having an established name, with history and a sound infrastructure back home as well as high-calibre faculty hardly needs to be spelled out, branch campuses have often been viewed warily. And not without justification.

There’s the risk of stifling the development of local institutions, which will lose potential students and faculty to the highly-funded, prestigious international names, as well as being muscled out of research fields. Then, there’s the dilution of quality that will occur when an institution sets up overseas, as prestigious, top-tier universities have earned their status through a considerable investment of time and money as well as no small amount of fortune. While naturally, some of this can be carried over, it’s not simply a cloning exercise – resources will be stretched or else risks will be taken in terms of the personnel involved. It is a scenario that can be easily abused by the unscrupulous. And you’d have to be squarely of a 19th century mindset to not at least wonder if there was not something vaguely imperialistic about the whole enterprise (even if you might not agree).

Nothing possible without (a lot of) investment

A corollary of this paucity of well-funded, high-calibre institutions (one of those phenomena which inevitably serve to exacerbate themselves on the level of perception, like a restaurant’s food hygiene rating…) is the problematic presence of the brain drain – something which consistently haunts higher education as well as business and innovation in the Global South. The topic was addressed at general assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa in June by Dr Ramola Ramtohul of the University of Pretoria. While enrolment is indeed on the increase, there is also a considerable outflow of intellectual talent looking for opportunities elsewhere – damaging, of course, to the economies of Africa as well as academia.

A lack of investment naturally lies at the heart of this, as improved funding and a subsequent improvement in perception would perhaps give African graduate pause before setting off to lucrative pastures new. Indeed, as a continent, Africa spends less than 0.5% of its combined GDP on research, and perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result, accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output, and a meagre 0.28% of citations (the TrustAfrica/Mail & Guardian report again). Not massively appealing to those who would have a stake in such things.

As well as investment, the problem of quality arises again. For better or for worse (depending on how you view the challenges facing the continent) the focus of the higher education sector is more focused on teaching than research, with the humanities and social sciences taking precedence over more technical and research-based subjects (not to say the former are not important, but there does need to be balance). The consequence is a skills gap that often results in the importation of skilled workers from overseas.

The World Bank’s Claudia Costin called for greater public and private investment at the African Higher Education summit in April. She added that higher education investment yields strong returns – not least in Africa, where its ROI currently stands at 21% – higher than anywhere else in the world. This is absolutely crucial to development, she believes.

As well as pointing out the need for investment, the World Bank will also be contributing to it, with around 20% of its educational commitments to Africa earmarked for higher education (as opposed to previous policies which saw investment focused on lower levels of education.) This amounts to around US$600 million and comes on top of the US$1 billion that has already been invested since 2000. This money will go towards projects such as improving higher education governance in Mali, and developing new programs designed to create graduates who will meet the country’s labour needs.

In further good news, Africa looks set to enjoy solid economic growth in the short term. The OECD, the UN and the African Development Bank have predicted that economies across the continent will grow by an average of 4.5% in 2015 and 5% in 2016. Growth is still of a moderate pace and uneven in the continuing wake of the Great Recession, with US$55.2 billion of predicted foreign investment still not quite as high as the region’s previous peak in 2008 (16.7% of respondents to EY’s Africa Attractiveness Survey stated better investment in education would make the continent a more appealing place in which to do business). But, these figures can still certainly be viewed in a positive light.

Some steps in the right direction

Elsewhere, we see small but significant steps towards progress. Lecturers in Uganda remain critically underpaid, but they did at least receive a 53% pay raise in July, which is hoped will prevent a mass exodus. In Kenya, a university research chair program has been embarked upon, which will see key focus areas for development identified and targeted, with an emphasis placed on innovation. Funding will come from Canada’s International Development Research Centre as well as Kenya’s National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation.

In Morocco, big players in the rapidly-growing IT sector, such as the likes of IBM and SAP, are stepping in to address any potential shortages in skills by running courses in tandem with universities. Elsewhere in North Africa, Tripoli University has partnered with the governmental Tripoli Business Incubator Centre to attract investment from business as well as to encourage students and graduates to engage in entrepreneurial activities, widen participants’ skillsets and provide employment opportunities.

With a lack of cross-border collaboration seen as contributing to Africa’s shortcomings in the higher education field, the launch of the Southern African Regional Universities Association Curriculum Network can also be viewed among the positive developments. A master’s program in climate change will be the first project of the 15-state group of nations.

There is no shortage of other positive developments across the continent. However, it would be something of an oversimplification to end by simply saying that things seem to be going in the right direction. The challenges which face higher education in the continent remain considerable. How the separate states, regional unions and the continent as whole deals with these will certainly be fascinating to observe. One can only hope that the choices they make will be for the right reasons.

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