Author: Irene Friesenhahn
Site of publication: Sci Dev Net
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: June 18th, 2014
Only since the 1990s has higher education’s importance for socio-economic development come to the fore, becoming part of the political agenda in many African countries. Lidia Brito talks to KazJanowski about the role of higher education systems in producing people who she describes as “agents of transformation of society”.There is now a consensus that Africa needs many more doctorate holders to develop the robust knowledge needed to promote development.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s higher education sector has expanded massively since the 1970s. Student enrolments across all levels grew from roughly 200,000 about 40 years ago to an estimated ten million today. But only a minority of the estimated 1,500 public and private universities across Africa offer graduate programmes.
Postgraduate enrolment both in master’s and PhD programmes made up 6.9 per cent of the total enrolment in 1997. But it rose to 9.3 per cent by 2014.
In 2006, African countries’ average public expenditure per university student was US$2,000 per year — more than twice as much as non-African developing countries invest in tertiary education. The continent also receives international support for higher education of about US$600 million annually.
Although investments into higher education have increased, they are not enough to support the growing numbers of students.
A shortage of personnel such as faculty members with advanced degrees is another major factor and is compounded by demographics: often, less than 40 per cent of all university staff are under 40 years old. The figure is similar to other regions but is lower than expected for a continent with the youngest population in the world. Budget cuts, hiring freezes, low salaries and low staff-to-student ratios (up to 1:46 in South Africa) discourage young graduates from taking up university careers.
This comes not only from decades of poor political commitment to higher education, but also the associated brain drain of academics. Qualified staff have often left faculty positions in African institutions to pursue more attractive and better-paid jobs either in other sectors or abroad.
In terms of employment, there is a mismatch between higher education and the job market outside academia. African universities have traditionally prepared students for public sector jobs, neglecting the needs of the private sector.
Although this is set to lead to reorientation to careers in the private sector, which may offer benefits such as better employment prospects and higher salaries, on the whole the sector is still too small to accommodate this transition (although wealthier countries may have the opposite challenge — see box 1). The result is unemployment or informal work, even for graduates.
University students learn little about how to apply their research, including about entrepreneurship, solving problems in communities or commercialising innovations. From this perspective, the proliferation of innovation hubs across Africa could be seen as a sign of failure of the higher education system.
Quantity or quality
Although the number of students studying abroad increased from 204,900 in 2003 to 288,200 in 2012, the percentage declined from 6 per cent to 4.5 per cent in the same period. This is one indication that domestic higher education systems are expanding, encouraging students to study at home institutions.
The same UNESCO study suggests regional higher education hubs are becoming preferred destinations for students on the African continent, partially due to similarities in culture and lower travel costs. Ghana and Uganda have become the new target countries for students, and South Africa has remained an attractive destination for students at all educational levels, hosting 22 per cent of the mobile students from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Policies that can help improve the quality of education include providing text books free of charge, removing barriers to women’s access, reforming curricula, training teachers to implement new pedagogical concepts in the classroom, and using information and communications technologies. Encouraging critical thinking, in particular, is seen as important to educational quality and so has been added to political agendas in some countries, including Nigeria.
Dovetailing with development
Universities can help generate jobs by balancing and integrating three aims: meeting the practical demands of the labour market; producing new knowledge through research by more doctoral-level scientists; and producing well-rounded and engaged citizens through teaching.
The importance of university-industry linkages is acknowledged across Africa. For example the Association of African Universities has successfully completed a programme that strengthened links between universities and industry.
International collaborations also have a role; for example, the ACU Graduate Employment Network brings together education and employment professionals to discuss best practices in graduate training.
Promising economic forecasts predict that the continent’s economic growth will be faster than the world average between 2013 and 2016. Sustaining this growth will depend mainly on countries implementing modern economic structures that focus on innovation and technological development. So it is appropriate that ‘innovation as a priority’ is a key theme in the African Union’s long-term strategy, Agenda 2063.
Africa’s education systems and economic prospects go hand in hand. Efforts to align them more closely require political will, strategic investments and a solid higher education system that provides opportunities for developing new technology-driven businesses. To achieve this, many higher education institutions will need to modify their profiles, curricula, teaching methods and research activities. This will involve making critical thinking and employability skills an integral part of learning and teaching, providing courses linked to industry needs and introducing quality assurance schemes. If they can do this, universities will be at the forefront of Africa’s transformation.
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