African countries are experiencing low production of tertiary educated human capital, as well as low quality and relevance of small-sized tertiary institutions that are skewed towards social science education and research that is not based on local needs. As a result, African graduates suffer unemployment and universities are not able to lead development.
These striking findings are outlined in the Africa Competitiveness Report 2011, jointly produced by the World Bank, African Development Bank (ADB) and World Economic Forum and published this month.
The report points out that African economies have achieved high levels of growth over the past 10 years, an annual average of 5.2% of gross domestic product. The African Economic Outlook is projecting 5.2% growth this year, higher than the global average of 4.2%.
"Africa must focus on policies and strategies that are key for sustained economic recovery and inclusive growth of the continent, such as higher education for skilled manpower and entrepreneurship development," says Mthuli Ncube, chief economist and Vice President of the ADB.
The report, which contains detailed competitiveness profiles of Africa's 54 countries, among other things reveals country performances in higher education, innovation and technological readiness.
In terms of higher education and training, the top three ranked countries are Mauritius, South Africa and Tunisia. However, only Tunisia places in the top half of all world countries, illustrating the quite low rankings for countries from the region overall in this pillar.
"It is perhaps not surprising that secondary education and university enrollment rates and the assessment of the quality of higher education remain weak in the region, given that the primary educational base on which to build has not yet been put into place in most countries," the report explains.
With respect to innovation, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia are the top regional performers and they are on a par with innovative countries such as India and Italy. These African countries have quality research institutions, invest strongly in research and development, and are characterised by a significant level of collaboration between business and universities in research.
Technological readiness is an area where African countries do quite poorly and they are well behind the OECD-calculated world average. The highest-ranked country in this area is Tunisia, at a relatively low 55th place, and it is joined in the top half of the rankings only by Mauritius (61st).
This reflects very low penetration of information and communication technologies, "related in part to the low prioritisation given by many governments to encouraging ICT and other new technology adoption, as well as low educational attainment," the report suggests.
However, Africa can be proud of its achievements in rapidly adopting mobile (m) technology, for example the innovative applications of m-banking in Kenya and m-agriculture in Niger and Senegal.
The report also analyses enrolment trends, accessibility and equity, governance, quality and relevance, financing, university-industry linkages, and entrepreneurship in curricula using five African countries as case studies: Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Tunisia.
Africa has devoted substantial resources to higher education, especially in the last decade, during which some African countries have doubled or tripled capacity at considerable cost. This was also emphasised by the recent report of UNESCO's Institute for Statistics, Financing Education in Sub-Saharan Africa - Meeting the Challenges of Expansion, Equity and Quality.
On average, education accounts for more than 18% of all public spending in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to 15% in other regions. Overall, the region devotes 5% of GDP to education, which is just behind the levels spent by North America and Europe.
However, the stock of human capital with tertiary education in Africa continues to be very low compared to other regions.
While the proportion of the adult population (25 years and older) that has completed tertiary education averaged 3.94% in the world in 2010, the average for Sub-Saharan Africa was 0.78%. The average years of tertiary education completed by the adult population in Africa is 0.05, compared with 0.2 for the world as a whole.
This figure varies between countries. For example, the proportion of the adult population that has completed tertiary education and the average years of tertiary education are 0.43% and 0.02 respectively for Ethiopia, while in Tunisia the figures are 6.2% and 0.11.
Tunisia produces the highest proportion of graduates at 6.2% percent of the adult population, followed by Botswana (2.7%), Kenya (2%) and South Africa (0.6%).
Other major concerns include the relevance of fields of study, curricula and the effectiveness of pedagogy for the development needs of African countries as well as the general quality of programmes and graduates.
While 50% or more of students enrolled in tertiary education in fast-growing countries such as Korea, China and Taiwan are enrolled in science, engineering and technology (SET) courses or business, the figure is only about 20% in Africa.
UNESCO's data on enrolment suggests that 23% of tertiary enrollment in African countries, and 17% in the sample countries, are in SET. Around 33% are in the social sciences and 35% in education.
"For the continent to be able to compete effectively in the modern global economy, there must be increased investment in science and technology. Without a strong higher education sector, there is no doubt that Africa cannot be competitive and attain the level of development desired," says Shantayanan Devarajan, the World Bank's chief economist for Africa.
Although enrolment in African universities has grown rapidly, its gross enrollment ratio in tertiary education of around 6% remains the lowest in the world. Enrolments in the five case study countries have grown rapidly in the last two decades, by an average of more than 200%, with Ethiopia recording a much faster rate of expansion than the others.
Indeed, Ethiopia's enrolment growth rate was the highest in the world, although its gross enrolment ratio is still less than 2%. By contrast, Tunisia's enrolment ratios are now matching global levels, although socio-economic, regional and gender inequity remain problems.
The inability of public sector institutions to absorb increasing numbers of students seeking admission has led to the rapid expansion of private tertiary education in Africa. Between 2000 and 2007, enrollment in private institutions increased by more than 80%.
Funding has not kept pace with enrolments, with the result that per-student funding decreased by an average of 4% annually in the decade to 2004. This has resulted in a deterioration of physical infrastructure, inadequate library and laboratory space, increased student-to-faculty ratios, and in some cases inadequately qualified professors to guide the academic enterprise.
Progress has been made toward gender parity in tertiary education enrolment in all five case study countries, and three have achieved full gender parity including South Africa, Botswana and Tunisia. Gender inequity also manifests itself in fields of study: women tend to be under-represented in SET and mathematics, and over-represented in liberal arts and social sciences.
There is general agreement that tertiary education quality is low by international standards for the five countries. Only Tunisia is ranked in the top quartile of quality rankings globally. It is followed by South Africa and Kenya.
Entrepreneurship education has not been systematically incorporated into the curricula of tertiary institutions in many countries, with the exception of Kenya, where some universities offer masters and doctoral degrees in entrepreneurship. Similarly, countries do not have well-articulated and established university-industry collaboration to spur development.
Despite policies that purport to provide tertiary institutions with operational autonomy, the report says: "Tertiary education governance in these countries is a tricky business." Some governments still exert political control over the day-to-day administration of universities.
Internal governance of tertiary institutions has not been efficient by international standards, and given that graduates frequently remain unemployed in the face of skill shortages, tertiary institutions are not externally efficient either.
The report indicates that the experiences of the five countries, and in particular Tunisia, offer lessons for African countries on how to expand tertiary education. These include:
* Tertiary education can be dramatically expanded, transformed and improved at the same time.
* Improvements and expansion require an increased infusion of resources because expansion and quality improvement cannot be had "on the cheap".
* Education policy and efforts should be intrinsically linked to national development policy, and tertiary education reforms should be part and parcel of education reforms generally.
* Tertiary education requires continuous and full commitment from the government.
* Education reform is a continuous process. Policy reforms may need continuous monitoring and revisions.
Based on the evidence from the five countries, the major challenges facing tertiary education in African countries are how to expand access and at the same time improve quality and relevance, how to make it more equitable, and how to provide adequate financial resources.
The report put forward a number of recommendations to tackle these challenges, which should be based on three pillars: quantity and equity, quality and relevance, and financing.
They include a massive expansion and re-structuring of tertiary education systems in particular, and education generally, including gearing institutions to high-priority science and technology fields for national development.
The report also proposes making students contribute to their education, expanding access through the use of ICT for distance learning, setting up mechanisms to admit non-traditional students who may not attend a tertiary institution full-time, and providing an appropriate regulatory framework and the right incentives for the private sector to expand tertiary provision.
Also, there should be restructuring of tertiary systems through curriculum reforms, instituting appropriate funding mechanisms, and incentives. The emphasis should be on strengthening science, engineering, mathematics and entrepreneurship with particular application to African problems.
Several possible additional sources of funding must be explored including the establishment of endowment funds, promoting the entrepreneurial activities of universities, consulting and other contract research with business and government, and encouraging businesses - through tax breaks and other incentives - to contribute to endowed professorships in their fields of interest.
Mamadou Goita, special advisor to the director-general of the Mali-based Rural Economy Institute, told University World News that although the report's indicators were helpful in providing an overview of the status of higher education:
"We need to think about new performance and success indicators that can grasp the real situation on the ground not just on paper, such as employment of university graduates, graduates skills development, and how scientific research carried out at universities contributes to economic development."
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