Achievements and challenges of private higher education

Over the past quarter century, higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa has recorded phenomenal increases in the number of institutions and student enrolments, due largely to the deregulation of provision.

For example, Ghana’s higher education system has grown from just two institutions and fewer than 3,000 students in 1957 to 133 institutions and approximately 290,000 students in 2013, with most of the expansion occurring from the mid-1990s.

Ghana’s experience illustrates the push factors, policy responses, transformation of higher education, quality challenges of private participation, and deepening of the internationalisation of higher education institutions on the continent.

Pressures for private participation

The expansion of the higher education sector in Ghana from independence in 1957 to the early 1990s was constrained by a number of factors, resulting in excess demand relative to supply.

Until polytechnics and other post-secondary institutions were ‘upgraded’ to tertiary status from the 1990s, higher education was conceived narrowly as university education.

The perceived low status of other post-secondary institutions made them less attractive than universities. Thus, one reason for the phenomenal increase in number of institutions and enrolments in Ghana was the inclusion of previously excluded institutions.

Other factors which contributed to building up excess demand for higher education institutions included a rapidly growing population; restriction of access to higher education through selective examinations such as the Common Entrance Examination; high unit costs; unsustainable subsidisation of higher education; a socialist ideology that prevented private participation; and the lack of an attractive vocational education pathway as an alternative to higher education.

Under these constraints, the demand for higher education outstripped supply to such an extent that, at some point, 51% of qualified applicants could not be offered admission.

Between 1966 and 1990 the higher education system, consisting of just three universities, was characterised by frequent student protests, strikes, closure of institutions and disruptions in the academic calendar. Policy changes were inevitable.

A combination of global forces pushed Ghana to move towards private participation in higher education in the early 1990s.

These forces included increasing democratisation and massification of education, the collapse of the socialist ideology, the spread of free market economics, and the emergence of public-private-partnership thinking.

Anxious to absorb the excess demand for higher education were not-for-profit religious bodies and for-profit private individuals and organisations that had for decades been active in the provision of basic and secondary education.

Policy response – Private participation

As part of sweeping education reforms that began in 1987, higher education provision was opened up to the private sector, while public higher education was gradually deregulated.

A legally mandated quality assurance body, the National Accreditation Board or NAB, was established in 1993 to regulate and guide the deregulation process.

Before 2000, there were fewer than 15 private higher education institutions, but by 2015 their number had grown to 106, compared to 83 public institutions. There are also numerous unaccredited institutions, 55 of which have been identified and published in the media by NAB for the information of the general public.


Private participation and economic liberalisation have changed Ghana’s higher education landscape since the mid-1990s.

Private higher education institutions outnumber public institutions but account for less than 25% of total enrolments, now approaching 340,000 students annually.

Private institutions have brought dynamism and competition into the sector and made higher education provision more market-oriented than it was under public monopoly.

For example, higher education no longer caters only for the traditional full-time student. Private institutions admit students twice a year and have flexible delivery schedules such as weekend and evening classes, targeting working professionals. They also actively recruit students from outside Ghana and offer innovative programmes to carve niches for themselves.

However, only a few private higher education institutions offer science and technology programmes, most focusing on less capital-intensive courses, particularly management and business administration.

Public institutions have also responded to the liberalisation policies by adopting market-oriented practices. For example, they introduced special fee-paying programmes and fee-paying admission quotas for applicants whose grades do not put them among tuition-free offers.

One of the most remarkable transformations in the public sector was the conversion of the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration from a public funded institution to a self-financing institution.

In general, liberalisation policies have made higher education provision in Ghana more stable, vibrant and responsive to market conditions over the past two decades.

Quality challenges of private participation

Private participation in higher education has raised concerns about quality.

Top-most among these concerns is whether private institutions would have the requisite human and physical resources for delivering quality education. A few for-profit and faith-based institutions have met or exceeded expectations, but the majority of for-profit institutions are struggling to meet expectations.

Wide variations in the quality of faculty in private institutions is a major concern. Overall, only 23% of faculty in private higher education institutions have terminal degrees (all at least have second degrees), but some institutions do not have any terminal degree holders at all.

Most private institutions have a long way to go in meeting the terminal degree requirement set by NAB. In the short and medium term, the supply of qualified faculty cannot increase to match demand, and most private institutions must depend on part-time faculty, some of whom combine multiple part-time appointments.

The accreditation authority has been implementing an increasingly rigorous quality assurance regime to allay public concerns.

New private institutions must be mentored by chartered institutions for at least 10 years before they are granted the charter to award their own certificates. So far, only three private higher education institutions – all faith-based – have been granted charters.

Accredited private institutions undergo intensive external quality audits at least once every four years, and their accreditation may be renewed or revoked depending on the audit results.

During the past 15 years, NAB has revoked four accreditation licences and temporarily suspended more than five others from admitting students until they rectified certain deficiencies.

However, the sudden closure of a financially strapped private institutions by its owners in 2014 pointed to loopholes in the regulatory system. To forestall such occurrences, NAB now requires bank guarantees equivalent to US$500,000 for new accreditations.

Quality is nevertheless being threatened by the establishment of unaccredited private institutions that exploit unmet demand for higher education. For now, NAB does not have the legal capacity to close down unaccredited institutions.

Deepening Internationalisation

Private participation and liberalisation of provision have contributed to the deepening of internationalisation of Ghana’s higher education.

Internationalisation has deepened in areas such as diversity of student enrolments; offering of foreign curricula and awards through collaborations; locating offshore campuses of foreign institutions in Ghana; and the adoption of institutional governance systems of foreign higher education institutions.

In the 2012-13 academic year, international students in private institutions constituted 12.6% of total enrolments, while in public universities the proportion was 2% – relatively low but unthinkable two decades ago.

Some private higher education institutions have established partnerships with institutions in other countries – such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the United States and the United Kingdom – to deliver their programmes and have their students receive foreign awards while studying in Ghana.

Tightened visa requirements for studies in Europe and North America are likely to promote further collaboration between local and foreign institutions, thereby deepening the internationalisation of higher education in Ghana.

The future of private institutions

At this stage, private higher education is mainly absorbing excess demand from the tuition-free public education system. However, elite private higher education institutions are emerging that target applicants from wealthy families locally and globally.

Predictably, the growth in number of private higher education institutions will slow down, as more stringent quality requirements are enforced.

Henry Fram Akplu is a retired senior lecturer from the University of Cape Coast, a public university in Ghana, and a former president of a private university college in Ghana. E-mail:

* This article, “Private Participation in Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana’s experience”, by Henry Fram Akplu, was first published by International Higher Education No 86, Summer 2016, the publication of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education.