Higher education – Caught in a double bind

Key reports and studies on African higher education over the last 10 years have tracked some of the main features of the sector and provide a snapshot of the state of the sector as a whole. By far the most striking trend has been the sector’s continuing, and increasingly rapid, expansion. This growth is unsurpassed by any other region in the world and, while definitely needed, it has also given rise to a range of related challenges.

Higher than average growth in Africa dates back to the 1970s. For instance in Sub-Saharan Africa, the gross enrolment ratio for tertiary education grew by an average of 8.6% each year between 1970 and 2008, compared with the global average of 4.6%, according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) trend report.

In enrolment terms, whereas there were less than 250,000 students in tertiary education in Africa in 1970, by 2000 university enrolment had shot up to 3.53 million, according to the Africa Capacity Report 2017. As many as 2.25 million of these students were from Sub-Saharan Africa, while 1.28 million were enrolled in universities in North Africa, notably in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

Ten years later, the number had increased to 9.54 million students, with Sub-Saharan Africa registering 6.34 million and North Africa 3.2 million. As of today, the African Development Bank estimates that there are 14 million students in higher education in Africa, representing about 6.4% of global tertiary education enrolments.

Similarly, universities in Africa have increased steadily from just about 100 in 1970 to over 1,500 in 2010 and the number is currently hurtling towards the 2,000 mark.

Unfortunately, while the growth is deemed to be explosive, participation rates are still markedly low compared with the global average.

According to Dr Kevin Andrews, vice-chancellor of Unicaf University, there is a crisis of unmet demand for university degrees in Africa. “To meet that demand, Africa would need to build 10 universities a week, with each one of them enrolling 10,000 students every week for the next 12 years,” said Andrews, whose institution is committed to extending university education in Africa through, an online platform.


What is likely to be more worrying is the quality of existing universities and their capacity to create job opportunities for Africa’s bulging young population. According to Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, Africa’s youth is projected to reach over 840 million by 2050 and will need 21st century jobs that are technology driven.

However, in the last 10 years, observers have noted that African academia is still locked into a past where universities prepared students for public service jobs and neglected the needs of both the formal and informal private sectors of the economy.

Thus, despite the unprecedented growth, African universities have not transformed themselves into engines of job creation. Too often, potential employers are dissatisfied with the skills and quality of graduates, according to a British Council study Can Higher Education Solve Africa’s Job Crisis? Understanding graduate employability in Sub-Saharan Africa conducted in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa in 2014.

Because of the lack of skills, the International Labour Organization suggests in a recent study that youth who complete tertiary education in Africa are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than youth with primary education or less, while in higher-income regions it is the opposite.

The problem of graduate unemployment and lack of well-paid jobs has been accelerated by unplanned expansion of tertiary education, giving rise to village universities and learning outposts, popularly being referred to as ‘academic garages’ or teaching shops. For instance, while Kenya had only 31 universities in 2010, the number is now around 71. Ethiopia, a country that had only two universities in 2000, now has one of the largest higher education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa, just behind Nigeria and South Africa.

Research and innovation

Another challenge is the lack of qualified staff. According to Wondwosen Tamrat, professor of education at St Mary’s University in Ethiopia, about 60% of academic staff in many public universities is made up of graduate assistants, although the official national requirement is that PhDs should make up 30% of staff and masters 50%. Ethiopia it is not an exception in this regard.

Slow expansion of quality postgraduate education has impacted negatively on research and development, and innovation on the continent. According to a 2016 World Bank report, the share of STEM research in Sub-Saharan Africa has marginally declined by 0.2% annually since 2002.

The study notes that whereas the Sub-Saharan African share of global research increased from 0.44% to 0.72% from 2002-12, the quality of the subregion’s STEM research as measured by citation impact stood at 0.68 – 32% below the global average.

Drawing on information gleaned from SciMago, a portal that highlights scientific indicators developed from the information contained in the Scopus® and Elsevier BV databases, there was no evidence that North African countries were better performers.

Numerous reports, including that of the World Bank referred to above, suggest low levels of scientific research are the result of inadequate number and quality of STEM courses.

According to a 2010 study Expanding Tertiary Education for Well-Paid Jobs: Competitiveness and shared prosperity in Kenya, 78% of university students in Kenya were in non-science programmes, the situation having improved from 80% in 2005.

In an interview with University World News, Professor Crispus Makau Kiamba, a former vice-chancellor at the University of Nairobi, and consultant for the World Bank, said more than 75% of Kenyan enrolment is concentrated in non-science fields, with serious repercussions for employment.

The World Bank report also noted that the Kenyan experience, which is common in Sub-Saharan African countries, is comparable to the North African Tunisian situation wherein disproportionate enrolment in the social sciences and humanities contributed to high levels of youth unemployment and, ultimately, had an effect on social stability in 2011.

Skills shortages

The lack of synergy between graduate enrolments and employment opportunities has helped to fuel an advanced skills shortage. According to Luc Soete, a professor of international economics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, there are currently 91 researchers per million inhabitants in Sub-Saharan Africa and 495 in North Africa. “This is up from 77 in 2007 in Sub-Saharan Africa and 474 in North Africa but still well below the world average of 1,083,” he wrote in a 2015 UNESCO Science Report.

While African countries, over the last 10 years, have established multi-campus university systems to cater for burgeoning demand occasioned by political liberalisation processes, the issue around quality, including at postgraduate level, persists.

According to Ishmael Irungu Munene, a professor of educational research, higher education and education leadership at Northern Arizona University, plagiarism is a growing challenge for African universities.

“For instance in Kenya, students are now able to contract academic entrepreneurs to write their research projects for a fee and in other cases some students sell their research projects to others who slightly alter the titles and submit it as their original research,” said Munene in a study titled Profits and Pragmatism: The commercial lives of market universities in Kenya and Uganda.

As pressure for expansion continues, governments will have to think beyond enrolment figures and start worrying about universities’ contribution to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – another relatively new challenge for African universities.

Women are also still largely under-represented in higher education, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Contrary to positive expansion trends in Africa, the gross enrolment ratio for women in Sub-Saharan Africa is 4.8%, compared to 7.3% for men,” according to the UNESCO trends report.

As it stands, it seems that the contemporary African university in the second decade of the 21st century is in a double bind: keen to open the floodgates of benefits of higher education to youth on the continent, but held captive by a lack of adequate infrastructure, limited resources and poor development agendas. Above all, its mission has been scuttled by corruption and leadership that too often thrives on partisan ethnic political considerations.