Countries share common higher education challenges

Regardless of geographical distances, political agendas and student bodies, countries in Africa faced similar challenges in respect of massification, quality, funding, leadership and internationalisation of higher education.

These parallels emerged during the round table discussion tackling key trends in African higher education during the inaugural Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America – HEFAALA – symposium held in Durban, South Africa, last weekend.

HEFAALA founder and convenor Professor Damtew Teferra said higher education sectors in Africa had expanded rapidly with student enrolment in Kenya doubling every few years. In Ghana student enrolment had doubled in the past 10 years while in Malawi it doubled in only five years. Uganda student numbers grew from 50,000 to 200,000 in the same period while the Ethiopian student population increased tenfold over the past decade.

Teferra, who leads Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, is the founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa – based in Durban and at Boston College in the United States – and the International Journal of African Higher Education editor-in-chief.

He said private higher education had also grown significantly across the continent with 25% of African students currently studying in private institutions. Some of these, like those in Tanzania and Nigeria, were religious-based institutions.

Government funding

However, he pointed to the irony of the fact that the less institutions requested in government funding the more they received as a percentage of their request. Ethiopia was a case in point: higher education institutions received only 20% of their requests in 2008, but in reducing their requests saw boosts in international donor funding and government contributions.

Symposium delegates heard that Makerere University, Uganda’s largest and third oldest higher learning institution, has grown fee income to 65% of its income requirements from only 10% a decade ago.

In South Africa fees had escalated as government contributions to higher education requirements had fallen. In 2004 the state contributed R8.5 billion (US$592 million) to higher education, rising to R17.4 billion (US$1.2 billion) by 2013. At the same time, however, massification of the sector escalated beyond the government contribution.

Association of West African Universities Director Professor Oloyedi Is-haq said higher education across Africa had common factors and local differences, but its commercialisation was excluding those meant to benefit. Higher education was becoming increasingly innovative as big business invested in this arena to develop technology.


However, he said while courses were increasingly internationalising their content in line with market demand, internationalisation was not taking place at the level of students.

Director of the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in India, Professor NV Varghese, said internationalisation at home was critical to raising the quality of higher education in emerging economies to prevent students leaving their home countries.

Expanding on Varghese’s comments, Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, Commissioner for Education, Science and Culture, Professor Hamidou Boly, said the internet and modern technology were sound sources for potential solutions to the need for global or internationalised course curricula.

ECOWAS receives no donor funding, but takes 0.75% of export production, translating to around US$600 million annually, to boost education and communication between West African states and encourage the free flow of education across borders.

“There are more benefits to working together to deliver curricula rather than relying on the World Bank to dictate what we can deliver,” said Boly.

According to Teferra, a key element in the growth of the sector has been recognising higher education as critical for development. In 1985 the World Bank declared higher education in Africa a luxury and called for some institutions to be closed and deserving graduates to emigrate for their studies, Teferra said, adding the institution had now reviewed its position.

Varghese said higher education was experiencing its fastest growth in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. He said Africa specifically had experienced more dramatic change than the systems could support.

Language issues

One of these changes was around language. Asian countries that had reverted to traditional languages after their independence from colonial rulers struggled with communication issues and were now returning to English or French as the medium of instruction and communication.

“Colonial languages cannot be wholly dismissed just because they are the languages of oppressors,” he said.

University of KwaZulu-Natal Deputy Vice-chancellor Professor Renuka Vithal said her institution had established a language planning and development policy, choosing Zulu as a development language at tertiary level.

The institution has one of the country’s largest Zulu first language-dominated student bodies and was already offering mainstream courses in Zulu including primary education. Now it was developing science, chemistry, law, engineering and other academic programmes in that vernacular. Tutorials in Zulu or English are offered despite the University of KwaZulu-Natal being an English-medium university, she said.