Rapid higher education expansion in development drive

Tanzania has made progress in expanding access to higher education in order to gear young people towards a middle-income economy by 2025, according to a World Bank report. It provides a snapshot of how the East African country is catching up with tertiary education growth trends in neighbouring states such as Kenya and Uganda.

“Historically, Tanzania has had very low participation in higher education, but in recent years the country is almost at par with countries that are members of the East African Community, in terms of higher learning enrolment rates,” said Dr Arun Joshi, principal author of the report.

Isis Gaddis is co-editor of Preparing the Next Generation in Tanzania – Challenges and opportunities in education.

The access issue

By the turn of the 21st century, the gross enrolment rate reflecting access to higher education in Tanzania was trailing at 0.7%, and there was a massive gender imbalance.

According to Professor Fiona Leach, a former director of the University of Sussex Institute for Education, in 2001 the higher education gross enrolment rate in Tanzania was a mere 0.2% for females compared to 1.2% for males.

Access to higher education has improved significantly since then, with a surge in secondary education enrolments pushing more students through the system and driving growing demand for post-school education.

The gross enrolment rate for 20-23 year-olds now stands at around 4% – still low in global and even Sub-Saharan African terms – while there is near universal enrolment among 7-13 year-olds. The gross enrolment rate is the proportion of the total population of any age group enrolled in education.

And student enrolment growth appears to be speeding up.

While in 2011, the government in Tanzania gave loans to 25,011 tertiary students, the number is projected to rise to slightly over 100,000 students this year. This figure represents about 17% of the number of students who completed secondary education each year.

Claudia Costin, senior director for education at the World Bank, said enrolment growth had been deliberate and meant to increase the number of people with higher education skills.

“Two years ago, Tanzania launched a nationwide higher occupational initiative which was dubbed ‘Big Results Now in Education’, which is expected to accelerate progress to building a significant cohort of a highly educated workforce,” said Costin.

Towards this goal, the government has in the last few years been promoting policies that encourage completion of secondary education, as well as supporting gender affirmative action in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at university level.

Higher education investment

The Tanzanian government has been investing in higher education, among other ways by providing low interest loans to tertiary education students through the publicly funded Higher Education Students' Loans Board, or HESLB.

According to Assangye Bangu, a senior official at HESLB, the loans that attract 6% interest are for needy students who may have not secured any other funding as well as for higher education staff undertaking postgraduate degrees locally.

The situation is not all rosy, however.

The financial sustainability of the higher student loan scheme seems to be at risk, given projected further increases in student enrolment – the aim is for 300,000 university students, up from 65,000 in 2013.

Given the high cost of financing education Oyin Shyllon, a development economist and member of the World Bank team that wrote the report, noted that severe strain would be placed on public resources as additional budget outlays will be required for the tertiary level.

The country’s route to improving the quality of higher education, which is key to strengthening post-secondary occupational skills, also faces obstacles imposed by high rates of loan default. In 2011, the proportion of loan defaulters stood at 53%.

According to statistics from HESLB, only a quarter of borrowers make loan repayments regularly and most of them are employed in the private sector.

The crux of the matter is that most beneficiaries never considered that they were getting a loan and too often took the funding to be a grant – or a soft loan that could be waived by government.

A major worry is that higher education in Tanzania is deemed to be too expensive, as it consumes 28% of the education budget compared to 16% for secondary and 40% for primary education, although the higher education proportion has subsequently declined.

Hard times lie ahead for Tanzanian higher education in that, in real terms, all components of the sector – higher education, teacher education and technical education – are currently suffering funding declines as a result of slow economic growth.

Prospects and problems

“The higher education system is experiencing unprecedented growth in the demand-side financing requirement. Political will has been expressed to support students at the higher education level, but reform of the current loan scheme is imperative to sustain the student support system,” according to the report.

“The loan scheme is expensive to operate, with real costs as high as 14.1% for 2009-10, while loans were issued at zero interest repayment rates. Access to loans for those in the bottom income quintiles was non-existent because of weaknesses in the means-testing process.” Also, repayment rates were very low, partly because loan repayments were not income-contingent.

No country in the world has made major socio-economic progress without investing in higher education and the necessary human capital. But for Tanzania, or any other developing country, to overcome under-development challenges, there is need to move beyond the ongoing expansion and financing strategies.

According to the report, Tanzania’s education sector is fraught with serious equity gaps, poor learning outcomes at secondary and primary levels, massive teacher absenteeism and lack of accountability regarding education resources – all factors that impact on learning achievement from primary through to higher education.