AFRICA: Tertiary education key to growth: World Bank

Tertiary enrolments in Sub-Saharan Africa more than tripled between 1991 and 2005, expanding at an annual rate of 8.7% - one of the highest regional growth rates in the world - says a new report by the World Bank. But public funding did not keep up and spending per student plummeted over 25 years from an average of US$6,800 a year to just US$981 in 2005 for 33 countries. "Educational quality and relevance both suffered as a result," according to Accelerating Catch-up - Tertiary education for growth in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report, presented this month to African Ministers of Finance and officials during the annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington DC, was written by Shahid Yusuf, William Saint and Kaoru Nabeshima and draws on 16 background studies of tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It describes Sub-Saharan Africa's "remarkable economic turnaround" after two decades of stagnation. Gross Domestic Product growth in the region accelerated to over 6% on average from 2002 to 2007, as a result of increasing macro-economic stability, market reforms and growing global demand for Africa's natural resource-based commodities.

"If this surge is to evolve into a virtuous spiral that stimulates even higher - and sustained - growth rates in a substantial number of African countries, significant investment in physical and human capital is needed over an extended period," says the report.

Africa's stock of secondary and tertiary-level skills is small and its quality highly variable and undermined by mortality from infectious diseases and by emigration, says the report. "African nations will need to produce a larger pool of good quality tertiary graduates and postgraduates, and to produce them particularly in the disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) fields relevant to a country's chosen strategy for economic development."

Accelerating Catch-up argues that the negative impacts of radical growth in student numbers without funding support were exacerbated by lack of attention to quality assurance and labour market needs, governance issues and lack of accountability. Also:

"Rapid enrolment expansion channelled students disproportionately into the less expensive 'soft' disciplines and siphoned off research funding to cover the costs of more students. In 2004, just 28% of tertiary students were enrolled in science and technology fields. Likewise, research output faded as Africa devoted just 0.3% of GDP to research and development, and the number of professional researchers fell.

"Graduate students comprise a shrinking portion of total enrolments, reducing the next generation of tertiary instructors and researchers at a time when their numbers should be increasing. These trends make it increasingly difficult to provide the relevant knowledge and core skills needed for African nations to boost competitiveness and sustain growth."

The report describes a litany of problems, including tertiary institutions lacking the autonomy to make decisions and flexibility to adapt to labour market demands, resulting in graduates with weak skills who often do not meet the job market needs, fuelling graduate joblessness that exceeds 20% in nine of 23 countries with available labour market data. Further:

"Inadequate funding for research and insufficient attention to professional development has led to a crisis in academic staffing just when teachers are most needed to instruct the rising numbers of students. A combination of inadequate salaries, heavy teaching workloads resulting from declining staff-student ratios, deficient personnel management, and lack of research opportunities makes staff retention and recruitment increasingly difficult.

"Vacancy rates in university staff positions frequently run between 25% and 50% and are most prevalent in engineering, applied sciences and business administration - disciplines commonly associated with innovation and economic growth." Further, the report says, institutions have been to "slow to sign on to the 'third mission'" (support for the economy) and to respond to critical changes in their roles, functions and operation demanded by growth of a globally competitive knowledge-based economy and new technologies.

In response to a decline in public higher education and to labour market demands, a private sector has rapidly developed in many countries. "While public universities doubled from roughly 100 to nearly 200 between 1990 and 2007, the number of private tertiary institutions exploded during the same period from two dozen to an estimated 468," the report finds.

"However, insufficient regulatory frameworks for investment, accreditation and quality assurance, and lack of incentives through competitive funding for research and innovations, have hindered private institutions' ability to compete on a level playing fields with public institutions and to broaden their role in promoting growth and competitiveness."

While tertiary education has been diversifying, with an estimated 1,000 non-university institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, this has been undermined by upgrading colleges and polytechnics into universities "without filling the niches they leave behind". The lack of attention to polytechnics "is worrisome in light of their potential to contribute skilled problem solvers to the national economy," the report says

Meanwhile in most countries public funding is not allocated efficiently toward essential disciplines, does not provide incentives for quality or good management or sufficiently fund research, and "remains the foremost hurdle confronting the future development of Sub-Sahara's tertiary education sectors".

Universities have increasingly drawn on private financing from students and parents to boost dismal funding levels - through 'parallel' programmes, 'self-sponsored' students, partial tuition fees, or facility 'user fees' - but progress "has been too limited to lift institutions above financial survival, to reduce dependence on government funding, and to have more than occasional resources for experimentation and innovation."

With limited opportunities in African countries to grow already high proportions of public money spent on education - on average 4.5% of GDP, with many countries allocating 20% of this to tertiary education - or to demand more from predominantly low-income families, the report suggests more public debate around financing and greater focus on using existing resources more efficiently and on innovative sources of funding.

"Increasing efficiency levels in resource use will require political will, policy consensus, and management acumen," the report argues, along with tackling the tradition of student welfare entitlements in many francophone countries, challenging elite privileges provided by large scholarship funds and prioritising government support for students in critical disciplines.

In the context of extremely diverse tertiary education systems, each country will need to chart its own course using a national development strategy and drawing on good practice, the report concludes. It outlines good practices that would support national efforts to build higher education including:

* Developing a strategy for national human resource development that goes beyond the tertiary sector, looks at comparative strengths and identifies research priorities.
* Funding reforms to offer incentives for achieving policy goals while providing stability.
* Strengthening institutional autonomy buttressed by accountability mechanisms to support increased system differentiation and institutional innovation.
* Encouraging diversity in teaching and learning approaches that facilitate institutional specialisation.
* Fostering the development of national and regional postgraduate programmes to increase academic staff numbers and build research capacity.
* Searching for lower-cost delivery alternatives for tertiary education.

The World Bank has been roundly condemned in Africa for using its financial muscle for decades to promote the development of basic education while discouraging investment in higher education - resulting in the stagnation and decline of universities that it now seeks to reverse. There will be many who look with cynicism at the identification of tertiary education as critical to supporting economic growth. Others will welcome the Bank's prioritising of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa and its growing support for the sector, which is comprehensively outlined at Accelerating Catch-up's conclusion.

Synopsis of Accelerating Catch-up on the World Bank site