Quality in higher education sacrificed for quantity

The recent findings of the Inter-University Council for East Africa regarding the quality of graduates in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda must be considered a wake-up call for African higher education. Between 51% and 63% of graduates from these countries were found to be ‘half-baked’ according to the employers. This is, to put it mildly, alarming.

Although the study covered only five countries and robust data on the quality of graduates in other African countries are not available, there is a general feeling that the findings are equally applicable, in varying degrees, to most Sub-Saharan African countries.

Warning signals

There have been previous warning signals about the quality of graduates in Africa.

In Nigeria in 2010, the accreditation of several academic departments in over 20 universities was withdrawn by the national regulatory body, the National Universities Commission, on grounds of lack of infrastructure and suitably qualified academic staff.

In 2011, the Engineers Registration Board of Kenya refused to recognise the engineering degree from three leading public universities because of poor curricula, lack of qualified lecturers and shortage of appropriate facilities.

In the same year, on similar grounds, the Council of Legal Education of Kenya rejected applications to practise law from graduates of several public and private universities in Kenya.

In South Africa it has been reported that many law firms have found that LLB graduates are unable ‘to draw up affidavits and pleadings as they lack both numeracy and literacy skills’.

There are many reasons for the declining quality of graduates but the root cause is the rapid expansion in tertiary student enrolment.

About a decade ago the tertiary enrolment ratio for Sub-Saharan Africa was of the order of 6%, a lower value than any other world region. This was hampering growth and development and there was no question that tertiary enrolment had to be increased.

At the same time, expansion of the primary and secondary education sectors resulted in an increasing number of secondary school leavers, putting pressure on higher education institutions to meet the demand.

Responses and consequences

Responses from African countries to cope with the situation have been as follows: i) increasing access to existing universities; ii) creating new universities; iii) upgrading existing polytechnics and technical colleges to university status; and iv) encouraging the establishment of private tertiary education institutions.

Increasing access to existing public universities resulted in soaring student enrolment without due consideration given to the absorptive capacity of the institutions or the available resources. Governments were unable to provide additional funds to institutions to match the increasing number of students.

Physical facilities in most institutions became overstretched. It was difficult to recruit new academic staff and the staff-student ratio deteriorated. To ensure equity in access, several universities lowered their entry requirements for targeted groups. Quality inevitably suffered.

New universities have been created in almost all African countries. In some cases the increase has been dramatic over a short period. For example, from 2005 to 2013, the number of universities in Nigeria increased from 51 to 128, and in Ethiopia from eight to 21.

A major challenge for most of the new universities is finding appropriately qualified lecturers. In some countries staff from existing universities have been transferred to the new ones, further deteriorating the staffing situation in the former.

In Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University – the oldest university – has been charged with the daunting task of upgrading the qualifications of the new universities. Also, many of the new universities are located in rural areas, making it difficult for them to have access to adequate amenities and facilities. Achieving quality has become very challenging for those institutions.

The upgrading of polytechnics and technical colleges to university status is another common strategy in most African countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Ghana among others.

Although the original intention was to maintain the practical nature of the polytechnics, inevitably ‘academic drift’ took place leading them to function as academic universities, but of poorer quality.

Again, the academics are usually not appropriately qualified for university teaching and students often enter the institutions with lower qualifications than those required for established universities.

Private higher education institutions have mushroomed rapidly in all African countries. There are now more private institutions than public ones in Africa, and their student enrolment is fast approaching that of public institutions. Although some very good private institutions operate in many African countries, most are commercially motivated and of dubious quality.

Thus, every one of the measures taken to increase quantity in higher education in Africa has led to quality being sacrificed. A direct consequence of this has been the increasing unemployment of graduates, which can have serious social, economic and political ramifications.

Urgent remedial action is therefore called for at institutional, national, regional and continental levels.

Ways forward

It is clear that ensuring quality in all African higher education institutions must now, more than ever, be considered a priority.

Over half of Sub-Saharan African countries have already established a regulatory quality assurance agency for higher education, and the remainder are in the process of doing so. But these are nascent bodies and face serious challenges of lack of staff, expertise and funding.

The strategy, therefore, must be to encourage institutions to set up their own internal quality assurance systems. This is already happening to some extent.

The German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, led a programme for establishing quality assurance systems in higher education institutions in East Africa, and has now started a similar initiative in West and Central Africa.

The African Union Commission launched an African Quality Rating Mechanism, or AQRM, which through a questionnaire encourages institutions to assess their own quality strengths and weaknesses.

The Association of African Universities, with the assistance of the European University Association, undertook a project on institutional evaluation of a few African universities using the European association’s Institutional Evaluation Programme model.

All these are worthwhile initiatives that need to be supported and extended.

At the same time, African governments must regard higher education as an essential public good that needs to be provided with adequate resources to achieve quality. They also need to exercise caution in establishing new universities and, in particular, reconsider the strategy of upgrading polytechnics to university status.

Higher education institutions, on their part, need to take some urgent measures.

In addition to promoting quality institution-wide, they must establish closer linkages with the world of work to ensure relevance of course offerings. They should actively participate in the Tuning Africa project, promoted jointly by the European Union and the African Union, to review curricula by involving all stakeholders, including the employers.

Institutions also need to provide the necessary ‘soft skills’ to students to make them employable. And they need to undertake regular graduate tracer studies to gauge the employment of graduates.

The challenges for achieving quality in African higher education are enormous, and need to be addressed as student enrolment will, and must, continue to increase to meet the development needs of Africa.

But they are not insurmountable. The challenges can be overcome through partnership and collaboration at all levels, both within and outside Africa. It is not necessary to sacrifice quality to achieve quantity in higher education in Africa.

* Goolam Mohamedbhai is former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, former president of the International Association of Universities, and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is currently a higher education consultant, including for the World Bank.


It is imperative the government makes higher education affordable too. Everyone should have the same opportunity to better themselves through education, which will pay off in the long term for the continent.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page