How can universities address spiralling enrolment?

For the past 20 years or so African higher education institutions have been experiencing explosive enrolment growth rates while funding has drastically declined. The statistics are staggering. For instance, according to the literature, from 1999 to 2012 enrolment shot up by 170%; that is, from 3.5 million students to 9.54 million students. Explosive university enrolment is a continent-wide phenomenon.

The World Bank states that since 1985, about nine African countries have led the trend in university enrolment growth. They include: Rwanda (up 55%), Namibia (46%), Uganda (37%), Tanzania (32%), Côte d'Ivoire (28%), Kenya (27%), Chad (27%), Botswana (22%) and Cameroon (22%). Overall, according to the World Bank, the African continent has attained an average annual enrolment growth rate of 15% in its higher education institutions.

It should be stated that privately-funded universities in Africa have not experienced explosive enrolment numbers compared to publicly-funded ones. This is because privately-funded universities charge more for tuition fees and other related expenses compared to publicly-funded universities.

In addition, privately-funded universities tend to concentrate increasingly on the social sciences, humanities, theology and business where the teaching-learning-assessment set-up costs are comparatively affordable for most entrepreneurs.

The focus of this article is publicly-funded institutions.

Quality education and class size

In the higher education sector, linking class size to quality teaching, learning and assessment has been difficult to pin down and also controversial. Class size, which denotes the number of students enrolled in a course or the number of students a professor or lecturer is responsible for, is different from student to faculty ratio. Nevertheless, class size in higher education is regarded as a subjective factor in determining the quality of learning or teaching outcomes.

Class size is also regarded contextually as just one factor in the professor/lecturer teaching experience. Academic skills, life backgrounds and commitment to teaching are said to be significant variables influencing the quality of teaching and learning outcomes in a course. The availability of and access to teaching and learning resources are also considered important. Student academic preparation, effort and motivation are equally important in determining learning outcomes.

However, other researchers claim that when these factors are taken into account small class size has a greater positive association with student achievement, retention, engagement, motivation, interaction and instructor effectiveness. These researchers contend that class size cannot be increased indefinitely without the quality being affected.

Obviously, as the enrolment rates at universities increase exponentially, classrooms, lecture halls, library and laboratory spaces will eventually exceed their capacity. This is the case for most publicly-funded universities across the African continent that have experienced an increase in enrolment of more than 40% without a corresponding increase in resources.

Excessive growth in enrolment has negative effects on the quality of education universities provide to students – the teaching, learning and academic environment. Studies of publicly-funded universities in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya indicate that most professors and lecturers have resorted to assessment practices like multiple choice papers, fill-in-the-blanks and short form answers as coping strategies to deal with the situation.

They also deliver more lectures and don’t combine them with student group work, individual or group presentations, in-class hands-on learning activities, role play, case studies or dialogical interactions with students.

One professor who teaches agricultural science at a West African university said he had excluded the laboratory component of a course because of the sheer number of students enrolled on the course. Instead, he brings equipment to the lecture hall and demonstrates how to use it to the students.

He asked this poignant question: "How could the students learn how to use a soil tester by merely looking at it? But that was my way out of the quagmire of inordinate enrolment.”

Individual or group assignments such as research projects, fieldwork or homework are equally out of the question. In this context, professors and lecturers are unable to identify struggling students, let alone schedule individual meetings with students for the purpose of assisting the teaching-learning process.

Furthermore, libraries, like classrooms or lecture halls, have their own capacities too. In fact, when a university increases its student enrolment without a reciprocal increase in library facilities, it leads to overcrowding and resource constraints. Whether students are borrowing resources or using them at the library, there is a knock-on impact on resources.

Additionally, overburdened lecturers and professors have little or no time to engage in research or personal professional development. This has adverse effects on universities that want to produce vital research for national development purposes.

Policy measures

African universities could take the following policy measures to deal with excessive enrolment and maintain high academic quality:
  • Establish optimum class sizes per course: University administrators, lecturers and professors should discuss optimum class sizes for every university course. For instance, it may be agreed that any science, mathematics, computer and engineering undergraduate course must not exceed 30 students.

    Once established, a monitoring mechanism should be put in place to ensure that enrolment does not exceed the agreed threshold. Indeed, for science, mathematics and engineering courses the class sizes should be comparatively smaller relative to the social sciences, business and humanities classes.

  • Using teaching assistants: Teaching assistants, especially students pursuing masters or doctoral studies, have been used in different ways to manage excessive enrolment in Western universities. One way of using teaching assistants is to divide a course into sections and assign each to a teaching assistant who will teach the course independently. However, the incumbent professor retains directorship of the course and the authority to exercise supervision.

    Another suggestion is to divide students enrolled on a course into tutorial groups and have a graduate student lead each group. Students enrolled on the course attend the main lecture and later attend the tutorial sessions.

    The tutorial sessions should be designed to give students the opportunity to learn in a small classroom setting, where they can conveniently ask questions, solve problems, pose problems, make suggestions or comments and interact with peers and the tutorial leader. In other words, this strategy can promote maximum inter-student communication and communication between the tutorial leader and students.

  • Using outside facilities: Another strategy is for the university to rent off-campus class facilities and use them for courses. An outside facility could be leased for a short period of time, say one to three years, while alternate arrangements are being made to build or buy permanent classroom facilities.

  • Weekend classes: This strategy has the potential to ease the pressure on existing facilities during weekdays. It allows the university to make maximum use of its limited facilities of lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories and libraries. Classes could be scheduled to accommodate students involved in religious meetings on Sundays or Saturday mornings.

  • Evening classes: Some sections of a course could be offered in the evening between 4pm and 10pm. That way, the number of students enrolled on a course could be spread between morning and evening classes. Again, the basic objective of this strategy is to use the university’s existing classroom facilities to the maximum.

  • Expanding existing facilities: Expanding existing facilities seems the most logical thing to do to accommodate excessive enrolment. Nevertheless, the university may not have the financial resources to do so. A solution to this problem may involve the university going into an agreement with a private investor, national or international, whereby the investor would build classroom facilities and lease them out to the university at an affordable rate.

    Another solution involves getting local or international philanthropists to build lecture halls and science laboratory facilities in exchange for naming those facilities after them. Some Africans may express concern about this approach as another cap-in-hand approach to international philanthropists. But this approach is like begging for tools for fishing rather than asking for fish. Begging for tools for future improvement is far better than asking for food or medical supplies.

  • Establishing a building facilities fund: Given the limited building facilities of most African universities, it is prudent for each African university to establish a building facilities fund for the sole purpose of accumulating funds for building and facilities expansion or acquisition. Funds could be obtained through donations, gifts and fundraising. Also, students could pay 1% of their tuition towards the building and facilities fund.

  • Hiring more lecturers and professors: A combination of part-time, contract, temporary and permanent lecturers and professors could be used for financial efficiency purposes. It would give the university a degree of financial flexibility as part-time, contract or temporary lecturers may not qualify for employment-related benefits such as sabbatical leave, pension, medical and dental subsidies. This way labour costs would be considerably reduced.

The excessive enrolment problem requires a pragmatic response from a reasonably autonomous university leadership that can be held accountable for its performance. In fact, some of the strategies discussed here can only be implemented if university leaders have the authority to act in certain ways, for instance, they may be constrained from hiring part-time, permanent, contract and temporary lecturers or professors by an existing labour union contract.

Whatever the situation, university leaders have to assess the managerial latitude they have for handling enrolment growth without it eroding the quality of teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, in most African countries, governments exercise a stringent control over their universities. This strips African university leaders of the autonomy they need to deal with the enrolment crisis. African universities leaders therefore need to form strong associations in their respective countries to put political pressure on their governments to grant them the degree of autonomy they require to solve the enrolment crisis.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy consultant in Canada. Samuel Kwaku Ofosu is academic affairs officer at the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons, Ghana.