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Rapid expansion but big challenges for African universities

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Rapid expansion but big challenges for African universities

Rapid expansion is exacerbating existing problems in terms of funding and ensuring standards in Africa’s tertiary education systems. Universities mu st also seek to match educational attainment with employment needs but none of these challenges are unique to African institutions. Neil Ford explains.

The proportion of people going to university has risen steadily across the world over the past 50 years. From being an option for a wealthy and well-educated elite, it has become a more easily obtainable aspiration for far more young people and those returning to higher education.

There is little doubt that completing higher education improves employment prospects but it also confers more intangible benefits. Better access to different ideas can help to produce a more rounded individual, thereby strengthening democracies and respect for civil rights.

The number of African university students increased from 3.53m in 1999 to 9.54m in 2012, the latest year for which full figures are available.

This is a far bigger proportional increase than in the world as a whole, where numbers rose by just 50% over the same period, although Africa was starting from a far lower base.

But there are big challenges in this process, including maintaining standards as student numbers increase; balancing teaching with research; and helping to ensure that there are enough jobs for those who graduate. Educational attainment has risen more quickly than employment requirements, so many graduates are overqualified for the jobs that they do. The desperate lack of graduate level jobs was highlighted in 2014 when 16 people were killed in stampedes outside recruitment centres in Nigeria among crowds applying for jobs with the Immigration Service.

Then there is the thorny question of funding. Most people agree that it is unfair for students to have to pay in advance for their education, as this heavily discriminates against those from less wealthy backgrounds. Yet financing courses out of general taxation generates accusations that those without the benefit of a university education effectively subsidise students through their taxes. Many African governments have limited financial resources but plenty of other pressing demands on their limited budgets, so higher education is always underfunded.

Some governments work alongside private sector companies to secure funding. For instance, in October, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama announced that Korean Export and Import Bank would help to finance infrastructural projects at Sunyani University for Energy and Natural Resources, Ho University for Health and Allied Sciences and Dormaa-Ahenkro. Private sector backers also often become involved in an advisory and technical role, such as offering internships to students, cooperating in setting up start-up firms and even supplying lecturers in business, scientific and technical fields.

State resources are sometimes drained by the problem of ghost students, when fees, grants or loans are claimed for students who do not exist. The only way to crack down on the practice is through regular inspection but this too costs money.

Another obstacle to many young people entering university is the lack of access to decent primary education.

It is generally estimated that 40% of African children reach adulthood without basic literacy and numeracy skills. Poverty, school fees, poor teaching and language barriers all play a role.

Many African pupils are expected to learn in their third or even fourth language, making the acquisition of knowledge far more difficult without the required language support. In Tanzania for instance, children may have mothers and fathers with different home languages and are then taught in English and Swahili. Many other children do not have the option of learning in any African language.

Brain drain

In September, the British Council published the findings of its three-year investigation into the quality of teaching in Africa. Its report, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development: Repositioning Higher Education in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, stated that the emigration of educated Africans to other parts of the world is being driven by both “the lack of availability of quality higher education and the lack of employment opportunities, leading to a substantial loss of talent and expertise”.

The emergence of private universities has been praised by some as a solution to the lack of university places in Kenya, but the study found that employers still preferred graduates of public universities.

Overall, it called for a greater emphasis on extra-curricular activities in order to inculcate more transferrable skills. It appealed that: “A holistic vision of learning across the 3 Cs – classroom, campus and community – is therefore needed to develop the kind of ‘allrounder’ graduate that employers seek, and who will succeed in a rapidly changing labour market, carving out new opportunities and generating positive benefits for society.” The privatisation process means that a greater proportion of graduate jobs are now with private companies rather than in the public sector, particularly in Anglophone Africa.

It highlighted particular problems in Nigeria, stating: “Employers believed that academic standards have fallen considerably over recent decades and that a university degree is no longer a guarantee of communication skills or technical competence. As a result, university graduates are commonly viewed as ‘half-baked’…

“The employers require work-ready graduates who can take decisions, act according to instructions, find opportunities, take initiative and produce results. However, these skills are not taught in the universities; and even many students with first-class results may not have these soft skills.”

There are a number of different models of tertiary education around the world and not just with regard to finance. There are generally closer ties between universities and economic need in East Asia, for instance, than in the United States and United Kingdom. Controlling the proportion of students choosing any particular field is problematic. It can lead to allegations of state control but governments must have some influence over how many doctors and engineers a country produces. There is more of a direct link between tertiary education and employment in some countries. Kenya for instance has a Tea Research Institute that provides degrees in fields relevant for the country’s tea cultivation sector.

In the past, many African universities have merely tried to copy their counterparts in the UK, US or France, but these are rapidly evolving, so African institutions need to choose their own path.

There is the potential for some to leapfrog stages of development, just as many African countries bypassed landline technology en route into the mobile age; and could now leap over traditional power grids to focus on decentralised renewable power production.

Remote learning is becoming more popular around the world and emerging African universities could focus on this from the very start. Students can continue to live in more remote areas but study, view lectures and interact with tutors and other students online. They can then physically attend residential courses on a regular basis. 

Pan-African ambition

The first phase of a plan to create a pan-African university was completed in March, when the Mauritius campus of the African Leadership University (ALU) opened for business. The ambitious project aims to develop 25 campuses in all parts of the continent, each with the capacity to educate 10,000 students at a time, to educate 3m potential African leaders over the next 50 years. All degrees, which will be awarded by Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland,

are designed to encourage students as leaders and entrepreneurs as well as academics. Glasgow Caledonian University already works with the University of Johannesburg to provide degrees in railway management to employees of South African transport utility Transnet.

Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, who attended the opening ceremony, said: “Building strong education institutions is perhaps Africa’s most urgent priority today. ALU is an audacious initiative that uses innovation to create a fresh solution to an old problem – creating high-calibre leaders who will drive Africa’s development and inspire generations to come.”

The project is the vision of Ghanaian entrepreneur, Fred Swaniker, who commented: “The end of major conflicts, reforms in governance and economic management, and a decade of steady economic growth now puts Africa on a promising growth trajectory. Whether this growth plateaus or translates to economic take-off entirely depends on the quality of leadership Africa produces.” 

Many African institutions already receive accreditation from universities in the US and UK but a new African Union and European Union initiative aims to standardise quality assurance and accreditation. The Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation (HAQAA) initiative was launched at a conference in Namibia in September and will seek to harmonise the process and make it more of a two-way enterprise that can benefit Western institutions as well as those in Africa. 

Remote learning is becoming more popular around the world and emerging African universities could focus on this programmes in the past have only covered select universities rather than the continent as a whole.

The AU hopes to learn from the EU how it has managed to harmonise educational standards across Europe and then to implement a similar approach across the African continent.

HAQAA coordinator Elizabeth Colucci said: “We wanted to do a course that would be unique in that it brings together representatives from the whole continent and subsequently form a sort of network. Participants will be formally endorsed by their agencies and ministries. In the third phase, which is next year, we’ll meet again in Africa and the training course will be on different African systems and how they can utilise some of the tools we are developing at the continental level.”

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has sought to boost standards by blocking the formation of new universities in order to concentrate resources on existing institutions. Nine universities have been set up recently but the president warned that there would be no more created for the foreseeable future. The National Chairman of the NonGovernmental Organisations Council, Stephen Cheboi, said: “It is right for the president to direct strengthening of the existing institutions and we fully support him on that. There is need to ensure quality education is offered in our universities.” The government hopes to direct more students into vocational education. 

Student protests

Pressure for change in higher education is coming from below as well as above. Protests in South Africa have attracted most attention but have also occurred this year in other parts of the continent, including Nigeria. At campuses across the country, students have become increasingly organised in their protests against corruption and economic problems in the country, as well as poor living conditions for the students themselves, as some student residencies are without electricity and drinking water. Students have been suspended or even arrested at the universities of Lagos, Ibadan, Adekunle Ajasin and Obafemi Awolowo for organising demonstrations. However, there is little doubt that it is the South African protests, which have now taken place for about a year, that have attracted most international attention. Students have campaigned against university fees and in favour of free education, with confrontations between students and police becoming violent when annual rises are announced.

Tensions have been particularly high at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, commonly known as Wits, where police have fired rubber bullets and students have been arrested, in some cases for allegedly throwing petrol bombs.

Several universities have been closed in order to allow tensions to subside and there are real fears that degree courses at the country’s 26 universities will have to be extended by a year because of widespread disruption. Ministers have claimed that the students are trying to overthrow the government.

The government originally wanted to increase tuition fees by 8% this year, although it promised to freeze fees for lower income students, those from households that earn less than R160,000 ($11,500) a year, which are estimated to make up about 75% of all students. The situation is particularly difficult for students from families earning just over the threshold as annual fees at Wits, for example, range up to $4,200. This year’s increase was suspended in the face of the protests but an 8% rise is still planned for next year. Average fees for 2016 are 80% higher than they were in 2008, roughly the same as the rise in inflation over that period. Many students have big arrears and face expulsion if they cannot clear their debts.

The protests are also connected to the slow pace of socio-economic change since the end of apartheid. Only 7% of white graduates from Wits are currently unemployed in comparison with 29% of black graduates. Pretoria dedicates 20% of its budget to education, a high figure by most standards.

Yet President Jacob Zuma’s government insists that it cannot afford free tertiary education for all and that it must maintain its expenditure on health as well as primary and secondary education.

This would be reasonable, given that many more prosperous countries make the same argument, but free education in South Africa is considered central to attempts to overcome the legacy of apartheid, while allegations of corruption, including around President Zuma, leave many students feeling that there is one rule for them and another for the elite. Pretoria is trying to encourage students who cannot afford university fees to take much cheaper vocational courses.

A political analyst at NKC African Economics, Gary van Staden said: “The demand for free education is just the tip of a deeper iceberg of frustration and anger among young people over broken promises, delivery failures, corruption, arrogance. What you are dealing with here is frustration that goes way beyond the fees. There is a general disappointment with the political system.”

The protests are likely to have played a big role in the deteriorating ratings given to South African universities. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016 rated the University of Cape Town the highest of all South African institutions at 148th in the world, down from 120th last year, with most other South African universities also tumbling down its table. The only tertiary organisation to move up the ranking was – surprisingly – Wits, up from the 201-250 band to 182nd.


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