AFRICA: Higher education is financially unsustainable

As a doorstop for one of the minor entrances to Valhalla, Financing Higher Education in Africa could serve nicely. This weighty tome is published by the World Bank and, with 60,000 words in five chapters spread over 200 pages - plus 25 figures, 26 tables and 29 boxes of summaries - the report is a mine of information. But its conclusion is gloomy.

"Currently, tertiary education development [in Sub-Saharan Africa] is unsustainable - resources per student are declining and the quality of education is affected," say the authors.

"These issues are particularly pressing in times of financial global crisis when available resources for tertiary education tend to diminish. The impact of the crisis that started in 2008 provides a clear illustration of the need to explore innovative ways to diversify and secure financing for higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa."

Two years ago the World Bank published Accelerating Catch Up: Tertiary education for growth in Sub-Saharan Africa. That volume set out the arguments for more "knowledge-intensive growth in Africa" and described the critical role of higher education.

It argued that the key to success in a globalised world was increasingly how effectively a country could assimilate available knowledge and build comparative advantages in areas with good growth prospects, and how it could use technology to address the most pressing environmental challenges.

"Higher-level institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa that are equipped to impart quality education and conduct relevant applied research can play a critical role in producing workers with the skills to assimilate technology and make effective decisions that help industry to diversify into a broader range of products," Accelerating Catch Up said.

"Good-quality and relevant higher education is also a key to stimulating innovations in new varieties of crops, new materials, or sources of energy that would facilitate progress toward reducing poverty, achieving food security, and improving health."

But it also noted the formidable challenge facing higher education, of balancing the need to raise educational quality with increasing demand for access. And, as the population of young people continued to grow, the task of financing the institutions would become even more difficult.

The latest report is a follow-up to the 2008 volume. In a foreword Yaw Ansu, sector director of human development for the Africa region, says it is clear that in most Sub-Saharan countries higher education enrolments have grown faster than nations' financing capabilities.

The result of a lack of resources has been a severe decline in "the quality of instruction and in the capacity to reorient focus and to innovate". Public financing in most countries is already overstretched, Ansu writes, and will not be enough to respond to the growing demand for access while delivering a "level of quality that provides students with the skills necessary to succeed in current and future labour markets.

"The easy path of laissez-faire expansionism driven by supply-side pressures, which is evident in some countries, will only lead to even further deterioration."

Yet within the gloom, there is some light. The report says "a full range of options" exist and that some countries and institutions have started implementing them.

The World Bank tends to favour privatisation of public utilities and a bigger role for the private sector in many government-owned operations. So, not surprisingly, this report highlights the "spectacular growth" of private higher education in Africa, along with the introduction of tuition fees which it calls "cost-sharing programmes...accompanied by student loans and financial aid for low-income students".

It says higher education is also being diversified to offer lower cost and more effective delivery alternatives. In a few cases, the report says impressive reforms to improve internal efficiency have been implemented, and governments are increasingly adopting more effective budget management practices.

Arguing for a comprehensive approach that would combine all possible tools to ensure more financially sustainable higher education systems, the report says the pace at which reforms should be implemented will depend on the situation and constraints of each country.

It also admits that reforming higher education financing is difficult and can generate controversies and tensions: "This is why policy-makers should carefully present the arguments, assess the impacts of proposed solutions, and engage in a wide consultation so that stakeholders are better informed of the link between proposed reforms and the likely improvement in teaching and learning conditions."

The first two chapters of the report consider rising demand and "sustainable financing". The third focuses on the main features of current funding policies, the fourth looks at financially sustainable policies and the fifth describes how to successfully implement financial reforms.

Summaries dotted throughout the book include budget allocations in Mali, "line item budgeting" in Uganda, research funding in Nigeria, a "financial revolution" in Uganda's Makerere University, and tuition fees in public universities in Benin.

After describing the fundamental problems faced by higher education institutions and students with the combined pressures of rapid growth in demand and growing scarcity of public resources, the report describes the dramatic consequences of these trends on quality.

But in analysing and comparing the current funding policies in the different countries, it also provides recommendations for improvement. Finally, it examines the alternatives to the status quo and the policy tools needed to both diversify resources and allocate them based on performance.

The report points out that Africa is the only region in the world to have experienced a decrease in public spending per student - a 30% decline over the last 15 years. Yet it says the average annual current public expenditure per student remains relatively high at around US$2,000 in 2006, or more than twice the amount allocated in non-African developing countries.

"Annual public expenditure per student in Africa therefore represents nearly three times GDP per capita, compared to only one-third in OECD countries and 1.2 times GDP per capita at the global level," the report states.

"The impact of the decline in public resources on the functioning of higher education varies from country to country. It is, however, stronger in countries that have a low rate of public expenditure per student (some 15 countries spend less than $1,000 per student) and that must cope with a sharp increase in the number of students."

An ever-increasing number of students results in a trade-off that often occurs at the expense of quality and particularly at the expense of expenditure on wages, the report notes. It says that if current trends continue apace, the total number of students for the entire African continent could reach 20 million within five years.

"The level of expenditure could be 75% higher than the volume of public resources that may be mobilised. The number of teachers required would need to double, from a total of approximately 456,000 in 2006 to 908,000 by 2015."

Yet the report refers to the difficulties universities are already experiencing in trying to maintain their teaching numbers given that lecture halls are overcrowded, buildings are falling into disrepair, equipment is not replenished, investment in research and in training for new teachers is insufficient and "many teachers must supplement their incomes by providing services to the private sector".

"It will be even more difficult for these countries to retain a sufficient number of senior faculty members who are necessary for the conduct of research, the improvement in the scientific and pedagogical quality of instruction, and the preparation of future generations of teachers and researchers. Indeed, the level of effort devoted to research has been inadequate to train a sufficient number of doctoral students," the report says.

"The investment required over the 2006-15 period to increase the capacity of current institutions (classrooms, libraries, laboratories, workshops and lecture halls), establishing new institutions that are better distributed across the territory, and improving administrative and teaching materials, is estimated at approximately $45 billion (in 2006 dollars) for public higher education as a whole, of which $20 billion is for low-income countries."

Unfortunately, as the authors admit, few countries in Africa are able to increase public financing of higher education. Their tax base is generally low and the share of their budgets that could be earmarked for higher education is hard to increase when most must also meet a high demand for access to secondary education and several are far from even achieving universal primary education.

International aid to support higher education averages $600 million annually, or a quarter of all international aid to education in Sub-Saharan Africa, the report notes, adding that the relatively low share reflects the current emphasis given by most donors on the development of basic education and the achievement of Unesco's goal of Education for All.

The impact of international aid is also limited because only 26% of that allocated to higher education goes directly to universities and research centres. The remainder is provided through scholarships abroad or is accounted for by directly imputing student costs in the donors' universities.

Another limiting factor is that aid is highly fragmented, owing partly to a lack of donor coordination. But aid is increasingly supporting the education sector as a whole and is being provided in the form of overall or sector budget support.

Governments then have more flexibility in how they allocate their own budget to education. At the same time, though, in a situation of economic or financial hardship, aid to higher education is likely to be competing with other priorities such as poverty alleviation, food subsidies or energy.

"It is my hope that the publication of this report will enrich the ongoing debate within countries, among stakeholders, and between African countries and their development partners," Yaw Ansu concludes in his foreword. "Informed by global good practices, our common goal is to make higher education contribute to finding solutions to the developmental challenges facing Africa."

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