New book probes funding of higher education in Africa

The financing of higher education in Africa is about much more than money, according to a new book. Deep issues include lack of capacity to use resources, mismanagement and red tape, huge expansion that sees more funding but spread more thinly across universities, and the generation of alternative income, says the book’s editor Damtew Teferra.

Funding Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, just published by Palgrave Macmillan, looks in-depth at financing strategies adopted in nine countries across East and Southern Africa – Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – as their higher education systems rapidly expand.

The book, according to the publisher, “makes an impressive contribution to two key areas of Africa's higher education development: a better understanding of patterns of funding and the need to improve deeper research on African higher education.”

Professor Damtew Teferra, founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa and head of higher education training and development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, was senior editor of the award-winning African Higher Education: An international reference handbook.

He was approached by the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa, or OSSREA, to produce a book on higher education funding as the leader of a research team supported by Scandinavian donors.

Some 25 draft papers were produced, and Teferra selected nearly a dozen of them, working with the authors to develop the papers into book chapters.

Because the researchers were not people who deal with money or economists, Teferra said, he had to negotiate the dynamics of the research, writing and methodological issues, the data manipulation and the presentation, and then a series of revisions and editing.

“It took a lot of work. About two-and-a-half years,” he said. In the end there were 15 chapters, including an introduction that captures the experiences, and a conclusion.

Funding issues and trends

So what were the major issues and trends that emerged through the book's research?

“It is remarkable that we simply talk in general terms about lack of funding, but we do not understand how deep the issues are. It is not simply about lack of money,” Teferra said.

“There are issues of mismanagement and lack of management and leadership.” Not deliberate mismanagement, but lack of capacity to effectively run institutions and manage resources.

“Some institutions may have money, but they don’t have the capacity to spend it. Ethiopian universities are an example. As tight as money is, they return millions to the treasury.”

Another factor crippling some institutions is red tape. Universities that are run as part of the civil service, have to spend money within that framework.

While Teferra was working at a university in Ethiopia, there was a survey that asked academics whether they were applying for funding that was available. “I said it was not worth it. With all the bureaucracy and the reporting, it was just a waste of time.”

In other countries, universities simply do not get enough money. Teferra gave the example of Malawi, where for every dollar asked from the government, only 20 cents is received, and universities do not have any private means of generating resources.

Privatisation of public universities

“In other places, such as Kenya or Uganda or even now Tanzania, universities have been growing stronger systems of generating resources. They have now a lot of private students – the privatisation of institutions is happening.”

In Uganda, although government funding is declining, Makerere University has been able to replenish resources through income generation.

In some countries, Teferra continued, up to 90% of students in public universities come from well-off families. “So there is every reason for the country or the institution to generate money from these individuals, but they do not. Tuition is free.”

There is growing acceptance in Africa of public universities earning private income, and of individuals paying for higher education. When he was a student, Teferra said, if fees were introduced students took to the streets in protest. This did not happen so much anymore.

“But the problem is and the question is: ‘Why do you, if employment is not guaranteed?'” In the past, graduates were assured of finding a job. That has changed. “A diploma or degree does not guarantee you a job, but without that diploma or degree, you are not going to get a job. That dynamic that will continue.”

Another development that the research uncovered was the emergence of different kinds of state funding for higher education. For example, Ghana now has an Education Trust Fund and Zimbabwe a student cadetship scheme.

There is more direct student support, via loans or grants – an international trend that is also happening in Africa.

The politics of HE

Although not directly articulated in the book, Teferra said, the massive expansion of higher education had “huge consequences” for university funding.

With democracy and political campaigning had come leaders who promised universities to their constituencies, and as a result institutions were springing up in large numbers.

“It has become a political manifesto, as it were. That establishing a university, regardless of what it is – it could be not even a glorified high school – is becoming a norm.”

New institutions cost billions of dollars to establish, he pointed out, and redirected funding from existing universities. Ethiopia, for instance, had two public universities a couple of decades ago and now it has 31.

While governments talked about wanting world-class universities, which are expensive, what was actually happening was the spreading of limited resources ever more thinly across more and more universities that do not have the capacity or propensity to compete internationally.

“That is an emerging challenge. From Ghana to Malawi, from South Africa to Ethiopia, that is what’s happening. And there are consequences for quality, consequences for global competitiveness, and consequences for governance,” said Teferra.

So is state funding declining?

Whether state funding of higher education in Africa is declining is a complex question, Teferra said. “In countries where there is expansion, what does declining mean? Is funding declining when you look at the entire picture or is it declining at an institutional level?

“In a country like Ethiopia, which established 10 universities in five years, if you look at the profile of what the Ministry of Finance provides you would find phenomenal growth in funding because of the capital budget. But if you go to institutions and ask them about their funding, you’d be sure to find a different pattern.”

Another complicating factor was high inflation in many African countries. While funding of higher education may appear to have risen, the increase may have been eaten away by inflation and so in real terms funding has declined. “One has to dig deep into those numbers.”

Private higher education

There has been phenomenal growth of private higher education across Africa.

In Ethiopia, for instance, there are now more than 70 private institutions, Tanzania has more than 50 and Kenya about 100 – although some private institutions have been closed there “for quality reasons and for shoddy delivery”, said Teferra.

“There has been massive growth. And where does the money come from? These are all privately funded by individuals, private grants, families, diaspora communities or whatever.

“What is very important, when talking about private education, it is not just about money-making in Africa. There are also faith-based organisations that are playing an important role.” In Tanzania, for example, 95% of private institutions are faith-based.

Across Africa, some of these institutions are Christian, others Islamic. “Faith-based institutions have more credibility than fast money-making institutions or for-profit private institutions,” said Teferra.

While there has been much concern about the quality of private higher education, there are many examples of high quality private institutions. In Kenya, a survey of employers in the Nairobi area found that in general they preferred to hire graduates of private universities.

“Of course, not all private institutions are the same. There is always a hierarchy that exists within a country,” he added.

An important issue for private higher education is that in most countries, their students are not eligible for state loans or grants. Given this fact, the growth of private higher education is all the more remarkable.