What do the next 10 years hold for higher education?

When the Africa edition of University World News first appeared in 2008, the initial issues provided greater focus on matters related to higher education in South Africa; this was understandable since it was sponsored by what was then the South African-based Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET). However, it quickly started providing a much wider coverage to become what it is today – the indispensable, fortnightly news outlet on higher education across the African continent.

It so happened that it was in 2008 that I assumed office as the secretary-general of the Association of African Universities in Accra, Ghana, a position that enabled me to have a bird’s-eye view of the higher education sector in Africa. So, 2008 was also a special year for me.

The past decade has witnessed many positive developments in the African higher education sector but if I were to identify three of them, they would be the following. First, the explicit acknowledgement of higher education as an important tool for Africa’s development. This was confirmed at the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education which put special focus on the revitalisation of higher education in Africa.

Also, the African Union’s Plan of Action for the Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006-2015) recognised that support for higher education had declined in the previous decade but that there was renewed interest, driven by the new vision of the African Union and the recognition that higher education had the potential of providing African-led solutions to African problems.

Second, the significant increase in tertiary student enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa. The student enrolment, which was of the order of 5 million in 2008, has now increased to almost 12 million. Considering the many challenges the sector faces, this is a remarkable achievement. And yet, the gross tertiary enrolment ratio for Sub-Saharan Africa, which was about 6% in 2008, has barely reached 10% in 2018, which is unacceptably low and remains by far the lowest figure than in any other world region.

Third, the recognition of the importance of improving the quality of higher education. Over half of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have now established quality assurance agencies.

There have been several regional and continental initiatives to improve quality, notably the promotion of quality assurance systems in public and private institutions in the five East African countries; the launching by the African Union Commission of the African Quality Rating Mechanism, a tool to facilitate continuous quality improvement in institutions through self-evaluation; and, more recently in 2015, the major continent-wide project on Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation, funded by the European Union and supported by the African Union.


But there have equally been many challenges facing the sector over that decade. High on the list would be the poor research output of African universities. In 2014 it was estimated that Africa, which has 15% of the world’s population, produced only 1% of the world’s research publications and 0.1% of global patents, the bulk of which emanated from two countries – South Africa and Nigeria.

Also, the output of PhD graduates was very low. In 2014 it was reported that South Africa produced fewer doctorates than a single university in Brazil, although the two countries have comparable economies. An important reason for this was the dramatic increase in student enrolment, which made teaching by far the prominent activity at the expense of research.

The acute shortage of PhD-qualified academic staff to undertake and supervise research was another major inhibiting factor. Lack of funds for research was also an important obstacle. Very few African countries invested 1% of their GDP on research and development as recommended by the African Union in 2006.

Graduate unemployment has been and remains a matter of great concern as the social and political consequences of high unemployment among the educated youth can be serious, as evidenced by the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa.

The causes of graduate unemployment are known: poor quality and relevance of qualifications, the lack of attributes and competencies (‘soft skills’) sought by employers in graduates, and poor linkages between universities and the world of work. As graduate outputs are expected to increase, the situation can worsen and requires a concerted, well-defined strategy and action plan at national and institutional level.

An issue that did not surface earlier in the decade but which was always there is corruption in higher education. It was Transparency International that in 2013 alerted us to the fact that corruption in higher education was widespread in Africa. Corruption takes place at all levels and in all institutional activities: governance and management as well as student admissions. It includes cheating in examinations, sexual harassment by academic staff, and plagiarism in theses and publications.

It needs to be emphasised that corruption in higher education is global and not specific to Africa. However, because higher education has such an important role to play in the development of Africa, it is imperative that this issue be addressed and appropriate solutions found.

The next 10 years

So much for the past 10 years. How might we expect higher education in Africa to evolve over the next 10 years?

First, there should be an increase in the output of postgraduates and research from higher education institutions, especially in the crucial areas of science and technology. The Pan-African University, established by the African Union, with its nodal institutes in key development areas in the five regions of Africa and with an emphasis on postgraduate training and research, should bear fruit soon.

Similarly, the World Bank’s African Centres of Excellence – 22 in West and Central Africa and 24 in East and Southern Africa – again giving priority to postgraduate training and research in key areas for Africa’s development, are progressing rapidly. These two initiatives alone – and there are several others – should change the research and innovation landscape of Africa over the next decade.

There is little doubt that private higher education, in diverse forms, will further expand significantly in Africa over the next decade, as government funds will be unable to support substantial growth in the sector. Already, in almost all countries, the number of private institutions exceeds public ones, and in several countries private student enrolment surpasses public enrolment.

The major concern here is the quality of private educational provision. While many of the private institutions, especially the faith-based ones, do ensure quality, the majority of the for-profit institutions operate as commercial businesses. They usually do not have a proper academic governance structure, they employ very few full-time academic staff and their programmes are mainly in non-scientific areas.

The burden of ensuring quality is then on the national quality assurance agencies. This is a challenge in view of the large number of institutions involved and the lack of capacity of the agencies.

Information and communication technology has spread rapidly across the continent in recent years and there is little doubt that this will accelerate over the next decade. This will increase the opportunities for higher education, not only to improve their operations and facilitate their academic activities, but also to increase access.

The use of open, distance and e-learning (ODeL), either for blended learning in face-to-face institutions or in dedicated open learning institutions, should experience a phenomenal increase. It is noteworthy that the only higher education initiative proposed in the first 10-year implementation plan (2014-2023) of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 is the use of ODeL to increase access to tertiary and continuing education.

It is vital that, over the next 10 years, there is a dedicated involvement of African universities in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); this has yet to happen. Africa did not really achieve the previous Millennium Development Goals and African universities hardly made any direct contribution towards their attainment, but that was perhaps because of the way the goals were formulated and publicised.

The SDGs, however, are different. They are well-articulated and are better known to the higher education sector. There are also specific targets under each goal and universities can easily relate to all of them, and not only to SDG4 on provision of quality education. African universities must mainstream the SDGs in all their primary functions – teaching, research and community engagement. The SDGs are too important for the development of Africa for its universities to be mere bystanders in their achievement.

Another imperative for African higher education over the next decade is differentiation of the sector – both vertically, with more polytechnics and technical colleges, and horizontally, with universities specialising in different fields, some placing greater emphasis on postgraduate training and research while others stressing teaching and learning. In fact, the need for greater differentiation was highlighted in the first issue of University World News – Africa in January 2008.

Unfortunately, the reverse of this has happened over the last 10 years, with polytechnics being upgraded to universities and new universities being created in the image of existing ones. This ’more of the same’ syndrome could seriously hamper the development of Africa.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, the former president of the International Association of Universities and the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is also on the board of University World News – Africa.