Flagship universities – Enrolment, typology, graduates

In a recently published article “African Flagship Universities: Their neglected contributions” – an outcome of a two-year study of a dozen flagship universities in Africa – I attempted to formulate an enrolment typology and also ventured into estimating the number of graduates these institutions have produced since their founding.

This article attempts to capture these aspects of the study, which is expected to be published in a book with the working title of Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, impact and trajectory.

The numbers

Africa has the lowest higher education enrolment rates in the world. But in the last decade, virtually all higher education systems on the continent have recorded massive growth.

For instance in Uganda, where Makerere University dominated the national higher education scene until 1988, half a dozen public universities have been opened. As a result, enrolment figures grew from under 10,000 in the 1990s to more than 100,000 in 2008 to nearly 200,000 currently.

In Ethiopia, the growth of the higher education sector may be described as phenomenal. In this second most populous African country, the number of public universities mushroomed from two in the early 1990s to 35 currently.

Even in Malawi, a country with the lowest enrolment rate in Africa, the number of students has more than doubled in just over half a decade to reach in excess of 10,000.

In terms of sheer numbers, Nigeria, with about 1.7 million students, has comparable enrolment figures to Egypt, which is considered to have the highest number of post-secondary students in Africa – more than 1.8 million. South Africa with one million students and Ethiopia with 600,000 stand third and fourth in Africa respectively.

Enrolment growth for universities exhibits a take-off time starting in the late 1990s, driven by the liberalisation of the global economy, enunciation of the critical role of higher education in the knowledge society as well as some aspects of the democratic processes of the continent.

The patterns of the growth trajectories of universities and higher education sectors in African countries – both in absolute terms and in proportions – have been the result of multiple factors including institutional and national policies, and improved access, funding and equity as well as international imperatives.

The term ‘massification’ has been widely used to describe the expansion of higher education systems in Africa and globally.

But this terminology, as often invoked, does not follow Trow’s (1974) typology that classifies higher education development in three groups – elite, mass and universal – based on enrolment ratios. To be sure, most of Africa still remains an elite club.

The study, as one of its outcomes, has attempted to establish the total student enrolment in Africa. Accordingly it projected the current enrolment in Africa to be in excess of 15 million students, taking into consideration a rather conservative growth rate of 5% for the years 2007-15 on the assumption that the initial ‘massive’ growth rate of 16% (according to the World Bank) has stabilised.

The trend: Enrolment Taxonomy

The enrolment trends of flagship institutions, developed on the basis of growth data since the beginning of the millennium, illustrate instructive patterns of an enrolment taxonomy in Africa.

This taxonomic rendering with loose boundaries exhibits four patterns of growth that could be described as: exponential expansion; major expansion; sizeable expansion; and stabilisation.

With three-to-four-fold growth during the period, the universities of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Ghana, and Nairobi in Kenya recorded exponential growth, while the universities of Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, Mauritius and Zambia have shown a major expansion of two- or more-fold growth.

While the universities of Botswana and Makerere have shown sizeable expansion of more than 50%, the universities of Ibadan in Nigeria and Cairo in Egypt have exhibited signs of stabilisation with fluctuating growth, both in the positive and negative territories.

Taxonomic rendering – Limitations

In articulating these patterns of growth in the region, it is important to point out a number of factors that may disrupt this taxonomic rendering.

For instance, why is it that some institutions appear to have sharp and sudden fluctuations in enrolment growth, other than when they are forced to do so by their governments?

First, the breaking up of constituent members of flagship universities into independent fully-fledged new institutions has been a common phenomenon on the African higher education landscape.

Quite a contrary phenomenon of mergers has also taken place, as in Rwanda where the University of Rwanda has brought together several institutions, including constituent universities, under one roof.

Second, occasional campus strikes that disrupt the academic year can make it difficult to document enrolment trends or other variables accurately. Third, the way enrolment is counted – including and-or omitting graduate and distance education – compounds the challenge.

Break up and merger
Many new institutions have emerged as independent entities after breaking off from their ‘mother’ institutions – the flagship universities. Mergers of institutions, which are not that common in Africa, hugely upset tracking patterns of enrolment growth (or other variables) institutionally, and so do break ups of single institutions into multiple independent entities.

Strikes and disruptions
African universities are often subjected to student and labour strikes that close institutions and disrupt academic calendars. Universities and entire higher education systems are known to close for extended periods of time. This has considerable implications for tracking enrolments, rendering the task of documentation somewhat problematic.

Data collection and presentation
Locating, accessing, organising and documenting enrolment figures in African institutions is treacherous as their information management systems still, in this electronic age, remain poorly developed and managed. The absence of an effective and centralised system entails cobbling together data from different sources based on varied assumptions, with implications for tracking a growth pattern.

The graduates

The study has also attempted to estimate the number of students who have graduated from flagship universities since their founding.

Based on numbers extrapolated from this study and major other sources, it can be concluded that flagship universities in Africa have made tremendous contributions to the training and development of high-level skills since their inception.

With striking similarity, a number of flagship universities in the study – Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana and Nairobi – have recorded an estimated 100,000 graduates each since their founding. It should be noted that these figures tend to be rather conservative, and in some cases capture only the last dozen years, as in the case of Makerere.

It is notable that the University of Cairo has registered more than half-a-million graduates in just the last 20 years. When the figure for Egypt, an outlier, is removed from consideration, the figure for 10 flagship universities in Sub-Saharan Africa is just under one million.

On the basis of raw data from the study, it is projected – for the first time – that the total number of graduates from universities in Sub-Saharan Africa that may be designated as flagship stands between 2.5 and three million.

Taking into consideration the massive expansion of flagship institutions and the flourishing of new ones, the graduate figures could amount to tens of millions.


It is important to recognise the contributions of flagship universities to capacity building and skills development following Africa’s independence. And yet most of the conversations and the literature about these institutions have been about their shortcomings and challenges.

It is hoped that such studies and ‘informed’ projections will help build positive perspectives for the expansion and consolidation of higher education across Africa, and will moreover help to promote policies and strategies articulated on both the continental and international stages.

Dr Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education Training and Development and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Email: or

This article, “Flagship universities – Enrolment, typology and graduate projections”, was first published in December 2015 as part of the editorial series of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa.