The expansion of higher education in Africa has not been accompanied by differentiation resulting, broadly speaking, in more of the same rather than greater diversity in types of institutions and learning, according to University of Nairobi professor Njuguna Ng’ethe. Countries need to tackle this problem if higher education systems are to improve access and produce the variety of skills that economies need.
Ng’ethe, a former member of Kenya’s higher education commission who is currently with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, is conducting a study for the World Bank investigating higher education systems in 12 African countries – and also, for comparative purposes, in Korea, Singapore, Chile, the United Kingdom and France.
The still-to-be-published study, described at the CHET seminar, is concerned with the related issues of differentiation and articulation. There are tensions between the two, he said: “We want differentiated higher education, but the more a system is differentiated, the more difficult it is for institutions to talk to each other and articulate.”
The areas that Ng’ethe and colleagues have probed include curriculum and teaching practices, types of courses and qualifications, the mandates and other characteristics of institutions, state regulations, financing and quality assurance.
One finding is that there is more knowledge of and policies on differentiation in Africa than there are on articulation. “However, both are at a very early stage in most African countries. They have not been given systematic attention.”
People talk about the relationship between universities, polytechnics and other forms of tertiary institutions, but that is about it. “To a large extent, therefore, university systems have been left to their own dynamics: there is often little direction from the centre,” said Ng’ethe.
Also “it is not clear whether there are different types of institutions or similar institutions with different names. An institution might be called a university of technology, but the curriculum is not very different from another type of university. Courses may have different names, but their content can be virtually the same.”
One of the reasons why there has been more expansion of higher education than there has been differentiation, Ng’ethe said, is because African governments have reacted to societal pressures for access to higher learning. “Higher education experts might call for differentiation, but there are not compelling societal pressures for it.”
While African higher education systems have built more and more universities, they have not been as concerned as they should have been about quality assurance, or about links between universities and skills and economic needs. “That is a major problem,” he warned.
When differentiation has occurred, it has taken different forms.
Political pressures have driven one form of differentiation – governments have responded to calls to create universities in regions where there was previously no provision.
“We are not sure about the extent to which physical decentralisation results in differentiation. But we do know that institutions must respond to the particular problems of a region, and so by default there must be some differentiation by region, and it is welcome.”
Off-shore providers – a big phenomenon in many African countries – are, “on the face of it, providing some differentiation by offering degrees from their countries”. However, foreign institutions often provide courses in popular, money-making areas like MBAs, information technology or communications, that are not very different from existing programmes.
“Our hypothesis is that overseas universities are not driving a high level of differentiation.”
Institutional reforms are often linked to the market. Universities are increasingly offering market-related courses, and so there is a proliferation of market-driven courses. But again, they are often in popular areas and are similar to what is already on offer. “Thus, only limited differentiation is coming from the market.”
Industry too is not a major player when comes to differentiation, according to Ng’ethe – but ought to be. “A few industry players are becoming involved in curricula, especially with polytechnics, but they are not driving differentiation.”
Funding is a major inhibitor. “There is limited differentiation if all universities get funds from the same government kitty. Even more important is the effect of undifferentiated funding formulae in the context of low levels of regulation of differentiation,” he added.
In most African countries, higher education funding is based on total student enrolment. “An institution might start out specialised, but in a context of low regulation it is free to add other disciplines. And because funding is based on enrolment, the institution may be tempted to add other courses which are cheaper but popular, with an eye to increasing enrolment. This defeats the whole purpose of differentiation,” said Ng’eth.
African governments need to change policy to place greater emphasis on innovation leading to more differentiation.” A previous study by Ng’ethe found that there is innovation in African universities, “but it is not driving differentiation and it is not being used as a criterion for funding”.
There is also the issue of ‘isomorphism’, with universities becoming more and more alike. “African countries start out with one university that becomes the ‘mother’ of all universities, and others tend to copy it, so there is not much differentiation,” he said.
Uniform governance is yet another a problem. Institutions are established in the same way, under similar laws that do not allow for differentiation in governance mechanisms.
There is a tendency in Africa, as elsewhere, to transform polytechnics into universities, said Ng’ethe. “We spoke to government ministers about this, and their response was that they hope but cannot guarantee that polytechnics will remain technical institutions.” At the same time, universities are experiencing ‘vocational drift’.
So higher education sectors that are currently differentiated, are becoming less so.
The study will conclude, Ng’ethe said, that where there is differentiation in African higher education, it is horizontal (a variety of knowledge fields) but not vertical (a variety of different types of institutions).
While national policies are beginning to respond to the need for differentiation, a great deal more work needs to be done – including on the effects of the expansion of higher education on differentiation and quality.
Finally, he said, outside of South Africa “we need more debates on the ‘size and shape’ of higher education in Africa so that when differentiation takes place, it happens within a well understood national framework for higher education. That seems to be what is missing.”
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