Private providers can help meet demand for HE – Report

The private sector – already providing about 30% of higher education places in Africa – can do more to meet the continent’s educational challenges, and African governments should be maximising its contribution, rather than ignoring or acting against it.

This was the main message of a report entitled The Business of Education in Africa prepared by Washington-based consultancy Caerus Capital and presented at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Durban, South Africa, from 3-5 May.

"This report puts into numbers for the first time the true scale of the private education sector in Africa and the opportunity for investment – including in higher education," David Ferreira, co-author of the report, told University World News. "At the same time, it shines a light on the opportunity for governments to harness the private sector in addressing education challenges."

The report, which calls on governments to facilitate private sector investment in the higher education sector, defines “private” as services and financing outside of public sector provision which includes for-profit and not-for-profit – the latter including charitable, non-governmental, faith-based, and community provision, among others.

Growth in enrolments

Drawing on data from the 15 largest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by population in the study’s first phase, and on-the-ground research in six countries (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Senegal and Liberia) during the second phase between July 2016 and February 2017, the report notes that growth in higher education in Africa has been the most significant, rising from 2.7 million in 2000 to an estimated 7.8 million today. The gross enrolment ratio has almost doubled, from 4.5% in 2000 to over 8.5% today.

However, lack of access to higher education, which is capacity constrained, is driving emigration and contributing to a long-term 'brain drain'. One in nine Africans with a tertiary qualification lives in an OECD country, compared to one in 13 Latin Americans and one in 30 Asians.

"There is a significant shortage of higher education places across Sub-Saharan Africa and the quality of public higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa is generally poor, with a shortage of qualified lecturers … Classroom overcrowding is common," the report states.

"Without dramatic changes to its education systems, Sub-Saharan Africa will fail to reach its potential as an engine of global growth and could indeed be a drag on the global economy."

Rapid private HE growth

According to the report, about 30% of all higher education places are currently provided by the private sector, and the segment saw nearly 15% growth from 2009-2013 in Sub-Saharan Africa, larger than all other core education segments.

“Given the segment’s high growth, high margins, and high revenue potential tied to enrolment scale, contact higher education is arguably the most attractive segment for commercial investors," it states.

The report argues that because the cost of training one science, technology, engineering or mathematics graduate is equivalent to the cost of training five in the humanities, even "more investment” is required in “already strained systems”. Humanities graduates constitute over 70% of graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report estimates the “size of opportunity” with regard to contact higher education to be US$2.0 billion to US$2.2 billion over the next five years. Such opportunities include the potential for commercial and strategic investors in private contact higher education to develop new institutions, “driven by capacity constraints in the public sector and demand for employability oriented education” and partnership opportunities for commercial investors in a “fragmented market”.

According to the report, as a result of proliferation of technology in Africa, distance higher education has also emerged as a major and growing segment and has a “size of opportunity” of US$0.5-US$0.7 billion over the next five years.

‘Complementary solutions’

While the report notes that “complementary solutions” from the private sector, both for-profit and not-for-profit, can help to fill the gap in education provision in Africa, Anouar Majid, Moroccan higher education expert and vice-president for global affairs at the University of New England in the United States, told University World News that for private higher education to work in Africa “it has to be based on the not-for-profit US model".

Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University in the United States and a member of the presidential advisory council that advises Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, said people tend to be sceptical of private institutions, but they offered a “way out” for students wanting to be better prepared for the job market, he said.

"Discouraging private universities does not achieve anything … World-class, quality-focused, and national development-orientated private universities should be allowed to expand and enter new scientific and technological fields to entice national universities to do their jobs better for the benefit of the country's economy," El-Baz said.