Author : Wachira Kigotho
Site of publication : University World News
Type of publication : Article
Date of publication : June 24th, 2021
Hopes continue to linger in Sub-Saharan Africa that universities will produce the next generation of professionals such as engineers, medical personnel, teachers, business and public affairs managers to propel the economies the region aspires to have, but too little funding, the youth bulge and a mismatch between higher education qualifications and employment opportunities are increasingly becoming the litmus test as to whether those good intentions will be achieved quickly.
According to UNESCO’s new science report entitled The Race Against Time for Smarter Development, the main worry is whether the current level of funding of tertiary education systems in the region will enable universities to embark on teaching, development and deployment of new state-of-the-art technologies such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and robotics.
On average, the sub-region was highlighted as spending about 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education, although some countries spent less than 0.1%.
For instance, in 2018, among the 13 countries of the Economic Community of West African States, at 3.3% share of its GDP, Sierra Leone was the highest spender on higher education, followed by Burkina Faso (1.8%) and Senegal (1.5%), while Gambia, Guinea and Liberia, on the other hand, spent 0.5% or less.
During the same period, in Central and East Africa, public expenditure on higher education was led by Ethiopia at a 2.3% share of GDP, Kenya spent 0.7%, Rwanda 0.6% and Uganda 0.3%.
On average, the sub-region was highlighted as spending about 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education, although some countries spent less than 0.1%
According to a World Bank briefing, Tertiary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, that was issued in December last year as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current gross tertiary education enrolment ratio is 9.4%, which is well below the global average of 38%.
In this regard, the rate varies greatly within the region from Mauritius’ gross tertiary enrolment ratio of 40% to 1% in Malawi and even much lower in South Sudan. Across the continent, approximately 9 million students are enrolled in the tertiary education sector, which is 4% of the total tertiary education students enrolled globally.
For instance, in 2018, among the 13 countries of the Economic Community of West African States, at 3.3% share of its GDP, Sierra Leone was the highest spender on higher education, followed by Burkina Faso (1.8%) and Senegal (1.5%), while Gambia, Guinea and Liberia, on the other hand, spent 0.5% or less
Relying on a database from uniRank, one of the leading international higher education directories, the Association of African Universities says that, to date, there are 1,225 recognised universities in Africa.
But, according to Dr Ann Njoki Kingiri, a senior research fellow at the Nairobi-based African Centre for Technology Studies, and Charles Awono Onana, a professor of mathematics at the University of Yaounde I in Cameroon, who were members of the team that produced UNESCO’s new science report, the main challenge is whether Sub-Saharan Africa will be able to develop universities that will be internationally competitive.
The two researchers stated that there is an insufficient pool of skilled human capital as a result of low enrolment levels of science and engineering students.
They noted low enrolments in agriculture, natural science, engineering and health sciences in comparison to social sciences, business studies, the humanities and the arts.
In the distribution of tertiary graduates in Central and East Africa by programme in 2018, or the last year reported on, business studies accounted for 60% in the Congo, 38% in Burundi, 34% in Rwanda and 33% in Kenya, a situation that was replicated elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But, even worse, the researchers noted the low absorption of graduates in industry, implying not just that available skills are unsuited for the labour market but also that there is little demand from domestic firms for innovation.
Blueprint was not implemented
According to the UNESCO report, African countries should update and implement the Continental Strategy for Technical and Vocational Education and Training that was adopted by the African Union in 2007 to reflect the rapid technological advances of the past decade, but few countries took any notice of the position paper, and those that did never took measures to implement it.
The strategy paper noted that, beyond the increasing phenomenon of unemployed graduates, many graduates were leaving university without any idea of how to get a job.
“In many countries, technical and vocational education is still considered by parents, the public at large and even some politicians as a domain for less academically gifted students,” stated the strategy paper, which is, despite the fact that it was published in 2007, still Africa’s blueprint on employment creation for youth.
Alignment of graduate skills with the needs of the economy in Africa is still a major problem that is more reflected in countries’ struggles to combat unemployment and even under-employment than to give university students marketable skills.
Population growth and brain drain
For the first time, ideas are emerging that Africa’s higher education, and more so in Sub-Saharan African countries, is being hamstrung by high population growth, as the surge in student numbers is putting pressure, not just on financing but on university infrastructure and staff-to-student ratios.
According to the World Bank, enrolments in the tertiary education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa make up merely 3% of all student enrolments in the region, as there are more than 260 million students enrolled across the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.
The brain drain also remains a major headache for Africa’s higher education system as highly educated academics have become more susceptible to the lure of better living and working conditions in prosperous developed countries.
But, even as they tried to survive economic challenges, African universities had to deal with a new curve ball: the disruption of COVID-19 that could persist for longer than anticipated.
According to the World Bank briefing, remote learning across tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa has exposed the digital divide as an additional element of socio-economic inequity in the region, as well as an extension of further academic inequalities across the universities.
“Universities that switched more quickly to e-learning, with pedagogical and technological support for academic staff, have already outpaced others in the learning race,” stated the World Bank.
What has emerged with academic disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic is that digital devices have become essential learning tools.
“Poor families that cannot afford to invest in computer laptops and smartphones face stark decisions about their capacity to enrol their children in universities and support them throughout the progression toward a degree,” noted the World Bank.
But, as the UNESCO report pointed out, the clock is ticking for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to start investing heavily in higher education to absorb the rising demand, as more than 60% of the population is under the age of 20 in most countries in the region, in order to combat unemployment and give graduates marketable skills to help in the building of modern economies.
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