Sunday, May 1, 2016

Africa‘s Tertiary Education Deficit is Threatening its Economic Development

 “Education, and higher education in particular, is the fulcrum and pivot upon which all other developments rest and rotate around. In the words of Andrew Carnegie, 'Upon no foundation but that of popular education can a man erect the structure of an enduring civilization'” – Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Sec. General,  Association of African Universities, 2012

Business in Africa is getting serious. The continent's markets have grown at unprecedented rates for the past decade, a consumer class with significant purchasing power is forming, at a time where Europe and the United States are in a more-or-less chronic states of stagnation.

Opportunities abound for foreign investors and African entrepreneurs alike, but there is a consensus that, while they certainly form key parts of the picture, growth in the region has to be about more than oil and minerals, and will require more than just highways and factories. In 2010, Howard W. French of Columbia University concluded that “All things considered, resource-based or infrastructure-driven development [...] appear unlikely to lead to a meaningful African renaissance."

A Harvard University study published in 2005 by Bloom et al ("Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa") was among the first to document the importance of tertiary education on economic growth and poverty reduction. Building on that research, UNESCO in 2006 declared that: "Expanding higher education contributes to promoting faster technological catch-up, improving a country's ability to maximize output and decrease the knowledge gap and poverty in the region. There seems to be an increasing recognition of a positive contribution of higher education to economic development, and there is a strong case for expanding the base of tertiary education in the developing world."

After years of explicitly steering funding away from universities in favor of primary education, the World Bank in 2008 concluded that, "[...] maximizing productivity and achieving competitiveness will depend upon success in augmenting human capital and raising its quality. The key to economic success in a globalized world lies increasingly in how effectively a country can assimilate the available knowledge and build comparative advantage in selected areas with good growth prospects, and in how it can enlarge the comparative advantage by pushing the frontiers of technology through innovation."

Everyone, it seems, at last agrees that higher education plays a pivotal role in sustaining growth and development. It is however disappointing that in the new sustainable development millennium goals defined by the U.N. in 2015, education is barely addressed through Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Human capital is freely available on the African continent in the shape of a huge, young, but largely unskilled workforce. But increasingly highly skilled labor is required as the African markets mature and grow -- labor that is in short supply on the continent. In 2012, global HR specialists Going Global reported that "More than half of South African CEOs report it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit workers and the shortage of skilled candidates is the most significant recruitment challenge." "Pioneers on the Frontier: Sub-Saharan Africa's multinational corporations" reports that finding skilled workers is a constant challenge for Multinational Companies (MNCs).

A 2010 follow-up report from the World Bank examined the financing of higher Education in Africa, and it concluded that "in most Sub-Saharan African countries, enrollment in higher education has grown faster than financing capabilities, reaching a critical stage where the lack of resources has led to a severe decline in the quality of instruction and in the capacity to reorient focus and to innovate. Public funding in most countries is already overstretched, and alone it will not be sufficient to respond to the growing demand for access to higher education while delivering a level of quality that provides students with the skills necessary to succeed in current and future labor markets."

So what is the status of higher education in Africa? How does it compare with the rest of the world in terms of access and quality?

We need to recognize the significant gap between higher education in Africa, and in particular in sub-Saharan Africa[1] (SSA) and the rest of the world. The gap is twofold: a problem of both quantity and quality.

The rate of access to higher education in Africa is only 7% compared to the world average of 25 percent, and discouragingly low when compared with the West’s 76%.  

In a 2009 speech to the Africa-US Higher Education Initiative Partners Conference, National University of Rwanda Rector Silas Lwakabamba declared: "We all recognize that basic education is indeed important.  However, it is also increasingly evident to policy makers and educators that a sustained focus on higher education is necessary to achieve a 10% graduation rate – a minimum for any country to ensure the possibility of sustainable development."

One of the reasons for the low rate of access to higher education is the low number of universities relative to the population. One way to measure access to university is by counting the number of universities per million inhabitants.


In Africa, there is only one university per million inhabitants, which is ten times less than in North America. In addition, since 65% of Africa's population is less than 25 years old, the demographic pressure further exacerbates the chasm. Overpopulated classes of several hundred students are common in many universities.

Specifically, the continent faces a dire challenge when it comes to the future requirement in one of the most promising areas: Information and Communication Technology (ICT). In spite of a sluggish world economy, the demand for skilled ICT managers and developers remains high outside the continent. Driven by cloud computing, big data, the "Internet of things," and mobile computing, computer and information technology jobs are projected to grow 12 percent in the U.S. over the decade that will end in 2024, and the demand for IT workers exceeds their internal capacity building. 

As a consequence Western universities and countries are heavily recruiting students abroad and in particular in Africa, to the detriment of African start-ups and investors looking to implement projects on the continent.

In addition there is a profound mismatch between the degrees offered and the skills required by the labor market in Africa particularly in sciences and technology, in part because it is cheaper and easier for cash-strapped public African universities and profit driven private universities to educate humanities graduates than e.g. engineers.

It could be argued that working as an ICT engineer or entrepreneur on the African continent is significantly harder than in the developed world where you can rely on a team of qualified colleagues and lots of resources. Managers and entrepreneurs in Africa need to be able to think on their feet, outside the box and be adaptable to adverse conditions. They need to be the best of breed -- or at the very least well trained.

Only a handful of African universities currently offer a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering/ICT, and they are by and large underfunded and quite unable to deliver the cutting edge education and skills required by the rapidly developing and constantly evolving ICT market. Instead, a substantial number of African students travel overseas to obtain ICT-related degrees, but it is worth keeping in mind that only 30 percent of Africans studying abroad return to the region after graduation. Moreover, the degree they obtain overseas may not be particularly well suited to the challenges they face in Africa.

As a result, the thousands of students graduating in ICT, Computer Science and related fields every year join the vast unemployment cohorts as businesses cannot make use of their poor or inappropriate skills. This is a major challenge for a region where ICT is a critical development driver.

When we then compare the quality of universities in Africa, the deficit is even more dramatic. Looking at the number of universities appearing in the 2015/2016 QS World University Ranking of the top 800 universities, we find that while Africa’s population represents 16% of the world population, it has only 2% (18) universities ranked in the top 800 and only 4 in the top 400. SSA only has 4 universities in the top 800 (in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana) and none in the top 400.


Some of the reasons for the low quality of African universities are linked to the difficult economic and demographic environment:
Rote learning: Many universities still apply the old rote learning methods sometimes inherited from the colonial time where student are simply requested to repeat what the instructor said in order to succeed, with no requirement for critical and creative thinking.
Absentee instructors: Professors don't show up for class about 20-30% of the time. Nominal remuneration incentivizes professors to seek supplemental income, preventing them from dedicating their time to their students. As a consequence the schedule of learning is irregular and it directly impacts students and the quality of their learning.
Curricular mismatch: The curriculum content is often outdated and not adapted to the business needs in the region. A computer science professor at a major university in South Africa confessed to me that their curriculum has been unchanged in the last twenty years and many professors never change or update their syllabus. There are very few direct contacts between universities and industry.
“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 showed a disturbing trend at several universities of a slide in the proportion of academic staff with doctoral degrees, symptomatic of the further decline of the quality of African universities.

Difficult access to- and low quality of- higher education combine to create major disadvantages for the development of sub-Saharan Africa. The development of any nation is linked to its technical labor force. SSA only has 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.

The quantity gap is significant and will require significant long term investments. Attempts have been made to address the issues surrounding higher education in Africa, and significant sums have been spent by foreign donors (e.g. the "Partnership for Higher Education in Africa" initiative that invested $440M in higher education from 2000-2010). In Senegal, the government under the leadership of its Minister of Higher Education Mary Teuw Niama with support from the UNESCO have launched a remarquable project to build new universities and science cities.

At the contrary, the quality gap of higher education can be addressed in great deal with simple immediate reforms that do not require significant financial investments. I will suggest ten simple and basic proposals that could impact the quality of higher education in Africa in my next blog posting.

Seeya later alligator...



[1] Here we define sub-Saharan Africa as all the countries South of North Africa and excluding South Africa.

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