Authors: Katharina Neureiter and Rob Jordan
Affiliated organization: CDC Group
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: June 22nd, 2020
Higher education in Africa
Africa suffers from a significant undersupply of higher education. Current tertiary enrolment rates across Africa stand at roughly 8 per cent – well below the global average of 32 per cent. This contributes to low wages and a shortage of skills and talent. In most African countries there are not enough student places to satisfy demand; in Zambia, for example, there are 3.6 times as many applicants as spaces available.
Demand is set to increase even further over the next decade. Enrolments in Africa are expected to increase from 7.4 million in 2015 to 8.8 million by 2030 and 21.7 million by 2040. About three-quarters of the expected global growth for the population aged 18-23 is expected to be concentrated in ten countries: Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Africa has the world’s fastest-growing youth population, with rising education levels. Over the past 40 years, secondary enrolment rates have gone up and completion rates have more than doubled from 22 per cent to 44 per cent. Many 22-40-year-old Africans are also now in an economic position to seek further education, which means mature students are competing with fresh graduates for limited tertiary seats. By 2035, countries from sub-Saharan Africa are likely to become the sunrise markets for higher education.
More high-quality universities are needed throughout the continent. Good quality public universities often cater to less than 5 per cent of the student population and are mostly located in capital cities. Further, the 2020 QS World University Rankings, which rate the world’s best 1,000 universities, features only 13 African universities, of which eight are in South Africa.9 Quality assurance mechanisms at private universities, including their compliance with local regulations designed to uphold quality, are often weak.
Employers are looking for skills that traditional higher education is not providing. Over 70 per cent of graduates in Africa study humanities and social science disciplines, yet more data scientists, managers and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates are needed. In addition, many of the STEM skills currently being taught in African higher learning institutions lag behind the technical needs of the job market. This means the graduate unemployment rate is high, while the lack of talent is restricting business growth. Reacting to job market demands, prospective students are looking for more innovative universities with multi-disciplinary, job relevant, technology-focused content and better quality teaching. Traditional campusbased higher education will still be a large part of the solution, and is expected to show growth, but online and blended higher education is best-positioned to fill the growing needs arising from these economic, technological and demographic trends.
Higher education in Africa is still out of reach for too many. The majority of students in sub-Saharan Africa will continue to struggle to afford Bachelors, Masters and PhD degrees. Universities will therefore have to adapt to make more affordable and relevant education available, as well as develop innovative student financing arrangements, such as income share agreements, to ensure equitable access for the brightest minds.
The future of online higher education
Online higher education is still an under-developed market. Globally, a few start-ups are trying to bring a more innovative, technologically-led, remote studying alternative to students. Yet, the annual costs of most of these options is still too steep for many. In some African countries, distance learning has already picked up. Estimates suggest that 60 per cent of Zambian students practice some form of distance learning. Nigeria’s Open University enrols some 160,000 students, making it the country’s largest tertiary provider. Yet, in general Africa has far fewer options in terms of quality online higher education. As such, there is an opportunity for start-up founders and investors. Conversely, being an early mover can also be costly: investment is needed to build the market and gain the trust of students.
Offering Western-accredited degrees can help gain initial acceptance with students and employers. However, local accreditation and a reputation for quality will be crucial to scale. Many students are risk averse when choosing a degree and are looking for degrees and institutions that are accepted by prospective employers. Accreditation from universities in the UK and US are important in these early days. It helps to signal quality and legitimacy at a time when local accreditation requirements are still geared towards ‘bricks and mortar’ delivery. Over time, degrees with local accreditation should become a larger part of the market. Some local universities, such as the University of Nairobi, are already offering online courses. In a post-COVID world, the trend of traditional universities putting courses online may be accelerated with local universities leveraging existing accreditation and a strong local reputation. However, as UNICAF CEO Nicos Nicolaou recently remarked, remote learning and well-crafted online learning are not the same. As such, there may be a blurring of the line between online and campus education as campus schools go more online and online schools develop more campuses and in-person learning experiences. Partnerships with large reputable firms – such as Microsoft, McKinsey and Google – and shorter job-relevant course offerings can also help establish the reputation of online learning.
To attract students, online education providers will also need to differentiate themselves by outcomes, such as improved career progression for graduates. To achieve this, universities need strong academic governance sitting alongside, but independent of, the commercial imperative. Quality online education requires high-touch support from the faculty and between students. In addition, to support job placement and career advancement, universities will need local partnerships with employers and active in-country alumni networks
Demonstrating learning outcomes and improved career advancement is paramount to industry growth. To attract students, online education providers will also need to differentiate themselves by outcomes, such as improved career progression for graduates. To achieve this, universities need strong academic governance sitting alongside, but independent of, the commercial imperative. Quality online education requires high-touch support from the faculty and between students. In addition, to support job placement and career advancement, universities will need local partnerships with employers and active in-country alumni networks. As a result, online universities in Africa, including foreign ones, will need to invest in their local presence in their respective markets to remain competitive. It also requires a focus on relevance, including dialogue with the job market, offering vocational degrees, workplace readiness training, career coaching and guidance, and developing a methodology for assessing and improving student career outcomes.
Pricing and affordability are critical, as many students still struggle to afford degrees. The price for online higher education is usually lower than campusbased options, and helps individuals to keep working while studying. This dramatically changes the affordability equation, opening up higher education to an income group who otherwise would not have been able to afford it. For example, an engineering degree in India costs $7,000–14,000, whereas an online degree costs $250–300. The share of the market across Africa that can pay high prices for a master’s degree, even while continuing to work, is small. On the plus side, costs for internet-enabled devices and data are decreasing, and network quality is improving. The average price of one gigabyte of data throughout Africa decreased from 13.2 per cent of monthly GDP per capita in 2016 to just 6.8 per cent in 2018, and this trend is expected to continue. Student loans, and, in particular income share agreements, will be an important part of education take-up in Africa, whether for new or existing universities.
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