Private universities set to overtake public institutions

Within five years the number of private universities in Africa is likely to outstrip public institutions, according to Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, secretary general of the Association of African Universities, or AAU.

The top academic made the prediction in New York last month at the launch of the publication Weaving Success: Voices of change in African higher education, hosted by the Institute of International Education.

In a panel discussion, Jegede described Africa as having around one billion people, the world’s poorest countries and highest illiteracy rates, low participation rates in and massive demand for higher education, more than 20 million people seeking employment annually and young people constituting 60% of the jobless.

He said the myriad socio-economic challenges that had plagued Africa from the 1980s as well as economic structural adjustment reforms had seen many governments cut public spending on higher education, paving the way for the proliferation of private institutions.

However, the collapse of the monopoly of African governments over tertiary education brought its own challenges: students are now seeking admission to institutions with varying and often questionable quality profiles.

The AAU secretary general said that for African universities to become notable players on the global stage, there needed to be a rethink of what higher education means to the continent in the 21st century, efforts to address imbalances between enrolment and quality, and curriculum reform.

Further, the role of private universities needed to be reassessed and tensions tackled between the existing model of fixed campus environments and emerging developments around open and distance learning.

Jegede said that in 1960 there were seven private universities on the continent. The number rose to 27 by 1990 and by 2006 the private higher education sector accounted for 22% of student enrolment, a figure close to that in Europe.

In terms of numbers, the student population was said to have trebled to 9.3 million in 2006, while a projection of recent trends suggests that Africa could have up to 20 million students by 2015, according to a 2010 World Bank report.

Today Africa has around 800 universities and more than 1,500 tertiary institutions, Jegede revealed, and the proportion of private universities is rising sharply. “The indication is that in five years Africa could have more for-profit private universities than those established by governments.”

“The contributions of private higher education institutions to the internationalisation of higher education in Africa can be seen in the changing landscape of provision,” he added.

In Uganda there are currently seven public and 27 private universities, while all of the 40 universities in Somalia are privately owned. Ethiopia has 22 public universities and more than 30 private institutions, while South Africa has 23 public universities and 87 private institutions. Ghana has six public and 42 private universities, while in Nigeria there are 36 federal, 37 state and 45 private universities.

He said the statistics clearly showed that to some extent private providers contributed very significantly to higher education in Africa, strengthened research and knowledge production and enhanced the diversification of faculty and staff.

However, there were also downsides. These included shortages of resources, infrastucture and funds and over-reliance on part-time academics from public institutions – with implications both for quality at private universities and effective performance at state universities.

Further, the concentration of private institutions on directly marketable courses was out-competing public institutions in respect of high-earning programmes that could augment the income of public universities.

As a result of the differences in infrastructure and development of African countries, Jegede said, hope for the continent lay in adopting a common framework and effective implementation of the 2006 action plan for the Second Decade of Education for Africa endorsed by the African Union.

Part of the action plan demands:
  • • Establish an African Higher Education and Research Space that pays serious attention to institutional and national quality assurance systems and promotes high-level relevant research and postgraduate training tailored towards solving African problems.
  • • Adopt and adapt open distance learning as an instructional delivery mechanism in Sub-Saharan Africa, to help raise the tertiary enrolment ratio from the current 6% to 50%.
  • • Use information and communication technologies effectively for instructional delivery and professional communication to develop, acquire and distribute knowledge and skills.
  • • Create centres of excellence in each region to develop robust postgraduate studies and develop a strong research base with global competitive advantages.
  • • Seek opportunities for collaboration and partnership on equal and mutually beneficial platforms with the world including universities on other continents, development partners, organisations and agencies genuinely interested in African higher education.
  • • Encourage greater mobility of academics, researchers, staff and students, and recognition of qualifications from and by regions of Africa through the harmonisation of degree structures.

    Jegede said donors had helped African universities get off the ground after a “terrible” downtrend. Now higher education in Africa needed to be consolidated and to strive for excellence.