Initiatives needed to tackle severe high-skills shortage

Although Sub-Saharan African countries have allocated large shares of government spending to education, the region’s university enrolment rates are among the lowest in the world and a severe mismatch still exists between the skills young Africans have and those employers need, according to a new ‘State of Education in Africa’ report.

The report was released at the 2nd Annual State of Education in Africa conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 2 September.

The report offers an opportunity for educators and innovators to gain a regional overview of all levels of the African education sector through key statistics and strategies. Regarding higher education, the report provides a snapshot of progress to date and challenges. Among the statistics are that:
  • • Only 6% of young adults in Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in higher education institutions compared to the global average of 26%.
  • • African countries allocate the largest share of government expenditure to education at 18.4%, followed by East Asia and the Pacific (17.5%) and South and West Asia (12.6%).
  • • Returns on investments in higher education in Africa are 21% – the highest in the world.
  • • Universities in many African countries are experiencing a surge in enrolment. Between 2000 and 2010, higher education enrolment more than doubled, from 2.3 million to 5.2 million. This leads to overcrowding at some universities.
  • • On average there are 50% more students per professor at African universities compared to the global average.
  • • In 2008 about 223,000 students from Sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in tertiary education outside of their home countries, representing 7.5% of the global number of students who study abroad.
  • • Private higher education is one of the fastest growing education sectors. In 2009 there were around 200 public universities and 468 private higher education institutions on the continent. Comparatively, there are 1,700 public universities and nearly 2,500 private universities (four- and two-year universities) in the United States alone.
  • • A one-year increase in average tertiary education levels would raise annual gross domestic product, or GDP, growth in Africa by 0.39 percentage points, and eventually yield up to a 12% increase in GDP.
  • • Africa is facing a severe shortage of highly skilled talent. Young people make up nearly 40% of the working-age population, yet 60% are unemployed. On average it takes a university graduate five years to obtain a job in Africa.
Moving forward

The report calls for commitment to improving higher education. “African countries will reap substantial socio-economic benefits from increased investments in improving higher education and developing strong curriculums for a knowledge-based global economy,” it says.

However, African nations are still far behind and most remain near the bottom of a Science and Technology Index first developed by RAND Science and Technology for the World Bank, according to a June 2015 study entitled Science and Technology Capacity in Africa: A new index.

To tackle the severe shortage of high-level skills, governments must make concerted efforts to correct a serious mismatch between the skills of graduates and demands of local and global workforces, focusing on science education and research to help stimulate economic growth.

While governments are investing in universities, efforts must also be made to both expand access and improve the quality of education.

With limited funds, African governments are entering into public-private partnerships with companies and investors like United States-based Africa Integras for infrastructure development projects to build academic facilities, housing and other facilities on campuses.

Public-private partnerships will bolster public education budgets to garner improvements in the overall education system.

“African governments must assess their countries’ priorities and needs, and invest in areas that will foster innovations and help to build a skilled and educated workforce,” the report concludes.

Its recommendations are in line with the outcomes of the 2015 #ScienceAfrica UnConference hosted on 21 July by the United Kingdom-based Planet Earth Institute, an international NGO working for the scientific independence of Africa.

The conference agreed that Africa's universities must focus on: producing industry-ready graduates; improving the quality and quantity of science in higher education; encouraging more women to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, careers; promoting awareness of intellectual property rights; and setting up partnerships with the private sector to invest in STEM skills.