Saturday, April 20, 2013

Raising the Bar in Africa’s Higher Education - Four Simple and Cost-Effective Steps to Improve Higher Education on the Continent

Africa has one university for every 1.2 million people. Cape Town University in South Africa is ranked 300th amid universities around the globe and yet it is the highest ranked on the continent. As discussed in a preceding post, a huge gap exists between the quality of Africa's higher education and that of the rest of the world.

The gap is twofold: a problem of both quantity and quality. Quantity wise, the number of inhabitants per university in North America is 100K, in Europe it is 125K, in Latin America 105K, and in Asia 572K [1]. At best, higher education in Africa is 2 times less accessible than in Asia. At worst, the continent’s higher education is more than 12 times less accessible than in America. We know that 65% of Africa's population is less than 25 years old and therefore demographic pressure further exacerbates the chasm. Overpopulated classes of several hundred students are common in many universities.

Quality wise, if we look for the first university appearing in world rankings for each continent, we will usually find a US university in first position, while Europe emerges around the 5th to 20th position depending on the rankings. The first university from Asia ranks around the 20th to 50th position; those are typically universities from Japan, Hong-Kong or Australia. If we are looking for the first ranked university from China and India they appear in the 200th and 400th position. Yes, as I mentioned above, Africa is represented by a single university in the 300th position while Sub-Saharan universities appear much lower. In fact, the first university from sub-Saharan Africa is ranked 1080th, indicating a significant gap in quality of higher education in that region.

Difficult access and low quality of higher education combine to create major disadvantages for the development of Sub-Saharan Africa. To demonstrate how this affects the technical labor force, the region produces 83 scientists and engineers engaged in R&D for every 1 million people compared to about 1,000 to 1,500 in the developed world [2].

Based on the many interviews of student candidates to our MSIT program I have conducted, evidence of persistent problems have emerged, related specifically in the IT area of higher education. Here are five facts I have learned:

Learning to swim by book. Students enrolled in programming language courses (e.g. a C or Java class) oftentimes have no access to a PC or five students share a single PC. As a result, many students may graduate from the course without ever running a program on a computer! As a friend of mine used to say, this is like learning to swim by book without ever jumping into the pool! Moreover, assignments and projects are extremely simple. Some examples from my students include: 1) Write a program that simulates a calculator; and 2) Write a program that prints "Hello!" on the screen. Upon my inquiry, students admit that being assigned to write a program that prints "Hello" repeatedly on the screen is the most complex assignment they have been given! Ultimately, professors fail to task students to solve even a single real business related problem.

Absentee Advisors. Professors don't show up for class about 20% of the time. Nominal remuneration incentivizes professors to seek supplemental income, preventing them from dedicating their time to their students. I witnessed this situation thirty years ago while teaching at a national university in Africa and, frankly, knowing the difficult financial situation of my faculty colleagues, I cannot blame them for doing it.

Curricular Mismatch. The curriculum content is often outdated and not adapted to the business needs in the region. For instance, many IT departments in universities teach artificial intelligence (AI) courses, copying the curriculum directly from Western universities. Somebody explain to me what AI can do to address Africa's problems? Yet at the same time, you rarely find courses on mobile technology or mobile software development that are critical for Africa.

“Green” Professors: One significant measure of the capability of the professoriate to provide quality research and instruction is doctoral-level certification. In Africa, doctoral-level faculty are the minority, sometimes with percentage as low as 20%. In addition studies have shown a disturbing trend at several universities of a slide in the proportion of academic staff with doctoral degrees [3], symptomatic of the further decline of the quality of African universities.

I have seen many cases in universities where teaching positions were being filled by staff with only a bachelor's degree. These inexperienced bachelors, lacking teaching qualification, are recruited by universities to perform full teaching responsibilities. In addition, they are rarely the best students from their class as the best secure more lucrative employment opportunities.

Resultingly, thousands of students graduate in ICT, CS and related fields every year to join vast unemployment cohorts as businesses cannot make use of their poor or inappropriate skills. This is a shame in a region where ICT is a critical development driver.

How can we change the situation? How can we push faculty to deliver better quality education and universities to deliver better graduates? In fact the gap is so huge that it seems impossible to close. While I don't claim to have a solution to these problems, I'd like to share a few suggestions. My ideas are not complex and expensive; instead they are low or no cost common sense solutions. And although I focus on higher education in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and IT areas, my ideas could be used more generally.

My four core proposals are as follows:

1)    Aptitude Testing: It is well known that human behavior can be influenced by measurements. No need here to reinvent the wheel, many measurement tools exist today. The GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) are two examples. The former is a standard criterion for MBA programs for over 50 years, while the latter is the standard for graduate schools in general. My suggestion is that African ministries of education organize GRE and GMAT testing in their countries to test the quality of bachelor students after graduation. While no test score can perfectly represent the aptitude of a student taking it, these tests have been around for many years and have improved over time to a point where they are now recognized as valuable admission criteria by most universities. These tests are managed by independent organizations guaranteeing the fairness of their results.

Some people will argue that these tests are not appropriate for African students. I reject the notion that African students should receive simplified tests. Rather than lowering standards for Africans, we should help African students raise their skills to a globally competitive level. One of the advantages of these tests is that students around the world take them to gain admission to American universities and the best universities in Europe. This will allow Africa to compare its students to the best students in the world. There is no reason why African students cannot compete against others if we can improve the quality of higher education in Africa.

One challenge here is that the cost of these tests can be prohibitive for individual students.  Perhaps these costs could be integrated in the university tuition. Another challenge will be to familiarize students with these tests during their studies to get prepared. There is a lot of literature available out there with tutoring material for these tests.

How then should we use the results of these tests?

First, we can employ these tests as tools to evaluate the quality of the students which indirectly provides an indicator of the quality of education of the university they graduate from. The aggregate statistics of all GRE scores from graduating students from one university can then be used as a measurement of the quality of that university year over year to monitor progress. I would recommend making these publicly available in order to help parents select the best universities for their children. Too often, I see African parents spending huge amounts of money to enroll their sons and daughters in poor quality universities based on minimal and imperfect information. With test score statistics, parents would have objective decision criterion to aid them in selecting the best universities for their children, while the "bad" universities will suffer from fewer enrollments. Poor performers’ only survival choice would be to seriously address the quality of their education, or disappear.
Obviously, the result of these test scores can also be used by students to apply to world class universities in other regions.

2)    Pressure for professor improvement: Aside from measuring students, universities should develop mechanisms to measure the quality of its faculty members. Several websites exist that allow students to rate their instructors, such as rate a prof or rate my professors. Some media are even using data from those websites to publish a list of schools with the worst professors! Here we need to be cautious as it is difficult for those websites to identify sincere from fake ratings. The last thing you want is for a student to vindicate his/her (maybe rightfully) low grade by trashing the grading professor on those sites.

Instead, I would recommend for each university to introduce similar rating systems such that students registered for a course are given the opportunity to rate that course after they received their final grade for that course. Most universities in the US have such a system in place. At Carnegie Mellon University students are invited at the end of each semester to rate the courses they attended on a voluntary and anonymous basis. What is important here is that the result be used not to penalize individual professors but rather to help them improve the quality of their teaching and learning through student feedback. This can also be used by academic committees to promote outstanding professors and encourage others to improve their teaching quality, potentially inviting them to “teaching excellence” seminars.

3) Organize and mobilize alumni networks: Alumni organizations are well developed in American universities. They serve many purposes: develop a network of alumni that can be tapped into by graduating students for employment support, by the university for fund raising, and for other purposes.

While African universities can use it for the same function, my suggestion is slightly less conventional. Africa cannot afford to continue investing in universities that deliver students that are unprepared to work in the country, let alone the regional economy. Alumnus networks can be used to track the employment of students after they graduate. Statistical data can then easily be collected showing the percentage of students finding  jobs over the years after graduation, the level of income they earn, and the types of jobs they are hired for. This, in turn, can be made publicly available granting some monitoring of the data to prevent fraud. Alumni organizations were not possible in Africa in the past due to the lack or high cost of communication. ICT and social networks have now reduced that cost to almost zero.

4) Striking Labor Supply/Demand Equilibrium: Get the private sector involved in university curriculum overview. Any university must have a curriculum review committee who determines course offerings for any given academic program. These review committees are comprised of professors and department heads who usually review program and course criteria from a solely academic perspective.  Instead, these committees should include representatives from the private sector- the people who ultimately would recruit the students after graduation. They could influence curricular content in an effort to endow today’s students (and tomorrow’s workers) with the skills necessary to strike equilibrium between the labor supply and labor demand in their industry. I realize this may be a controversial suggestion for traditional academics, but at this stage Africa cannot afford the luxury of universities delivering graduates who cannot be employed immediately because they lack necessary industry skills. 

Another approach to better integrate industry needs with academic education is for professors to get more involved with private sector people. This can be done in different ways: inviting private sector guest speakers in their courses, organizing "real" internships for students in local and regional businesses, asking industry for problems ideas that can be used in class for students to address, and so many others.

These are not magic bullets, but the advantage of these ideas is that they have no or small costs associated with them, they are easy to implement and can only improve the situation.

Seeya later alligator...

[1] These numbers have been calculated based on the number of universities per region from Webometrics and population from Worldstat Info.

[2] Voice for the World's Poor: Selected Speeches and Writings of World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, 1995-2005, May 2005, p 524: Merging Global Knowledge with Local Knowledge, Remarks by James D. Wolfensohn, World Bank President at the Knowledge Economy Forum in Abuja, Nigeria, January 30, 2005

[3] W.J. Tettey, Challenges of Developing and Retaining the Next Generation of Academics: Deficit in Academic Staff Capacity at African Universities, Study Commissioned by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2010, URL: