Changing the discourse on private higher education

The rise of private higher education in Africa has been mainly driven by such factors as the inability of the public sector to meet growing demands, strains on public finance that called for alternative sources of funding and consequent economic policies that led to structural reforms.

By global standards, the growth of the private higher education sector in Africa remains low – currently hovering around 20% of the overall tertiary enrolment. However, the sector’s importance is strongly felt in terms of addressing the deficiencies of the public sector, creating job opportunities, enhancing managerial efficiencies and infusing an entrepreneurial culture into the traditionally conservative higher education arena.

The significant role governments play through appropriate legislation and policies remains one of the most critical levers for lending credence to, and advancing the growth of, the private higher education sector. However, arguments against private higher education have been equally strong due to a host of controversies surrounding the use of taxpayers’ money on private institutions.

We argue that while direct support to private higher education could be difficult and in most cases controversial, an indirect form of support to private higher education institutions, even in resource-depleted contexts like Africa, could help the sector thrive.

This type of support, some of which we consider progressive, could come in various forms, as regional experiences discussed here indicate.

Loans and scholarships

Loans to students and-or institutions are common forms of support to private higher education institutions, though instituting efficient mechanisms in Africa has not been particularly easy.

In Kenya, students from chartered private universities benefit from loans disbursed by the Higher Education Loans Board. In Ghana, the Student Loan Trust Fund provides loans to students enrolled at accredited institutions – including private higher education institutions. Lesotho’s interest-free Loan Bursary Fund is open to all students who have obtained admission to higher education institutions. Botswana provides student loans and scholarships to privately enrolled students.

In Nigeria, private higher education students excluded from the public higher education tax fund can access loans operated by the Nigerian Education Bank. Banks in Namibia avail collateral-based loans for higher education at commercial rates. Mozambique’s Provincial Scholarship Fund is dedicated to poor students enrolled in public and private higher education institutions.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mauritius, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, government-sponsored student loans are either non-existent or exclude students from private higher education institutions, although recently, the Ethiopian ministry of education started supporting academic staff at private higher education institutions for studies at public institutions – by granting tuition remission.

Loans made available to institutions – at concessional interest rates – are critical in many ways.

The Tanzanian Education Authority encourages the provision of loans and grants to private higher education institutions to meet costs for construction and rehabilitation of educational facilities, purchase educational equipment and develop their human resources. In Mozambique, private higher education institutions are entitled to benefit from the Quality Enhancement and Innovation Fund, which is dedicated to strengthening institutional capacity.

In the Ethiopian context, however, special loan arrangements that are common for such sectors as manufacturing and export trade are not yet available to the private higher education sector.

Auxiliary enterprises and taxation

In Kenya and Tanzania, governments do not provide direct subsidies to private higher education institutions; however, they encourage the private sector to invest in such institutions. Private higher education institutions in Kenya are encouraged to set up auxiliary enterprises that engage in activities such as agriculture, cafeterias, bookstores, clinics, laundry, carpentry and leasing of conference facilities.

In Tunisia, government incentives for private higher education institutions include offering grants that cover up to 25% of their total establishment costs and 25% of faculty salaries for a period of 10 years.

Ethiopia has lately announced competitive research funding for higher education institutions, but it is not clear yet whether private institutions will be part of this scheme. Favorable taxation measures have usually been a common means of spurring private higher education growth. The Ethiopian investment law exempts duty taxes on building materials used for educational institutions. It also allows exemption from income taxes for the first three years; this, however, has had limited effect due to the brevity of the gestation period for such an investment to take off.

The Ghanaian government has recently announced that it will scrap the 25% corporate tax imposed on private universities to enhance their roles in national development.

Provision of land

Governments can also assist private higher education institutions by providing land for free or at discounted prices or rent. This is crucial, especially where the cost of land happens to be exorbitant and private higher education institutions are spending an inordinate amount of funds on rented facilities.

In Uganda, the government allegedly donated 300 acres of land to Mbale University to help generate additional income through rentals. The Tunisian experience involves selling parcels of land to private higher education institutions s for one dinar – as a symbolic gesture of support to the sector. Ethiopia has also granted plots of land to many private higher education institutions as an investment incentive.

Levelling the regulatory field

Levelling the playing field for both private and public providers of higher education is a notably progressive policy track pursued by governments. In Egypt, the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education serves as an independent accrediting body for all types and levels of education. The same is true for Ghana’s National Accreditation Board, Kenya’s Commission for Higher Education and Uganda’s Council for Higher Education, which regulate both private and public higher education institutions.

The Council on Higher Education of Lesotho regulates both public and private institutions, despite their differences in establishment. However, accreditation requirements in Ethiopia continue to be only applicable to private higher education institutions.

Progressive policies

Private higher education institutions will grow and may even thrive in the African higher education landscape as the global and regional thirst for higher education continues to surge. It is thus high time to change the discourse on private higher education institutions along with emerging realities, to harness their potential through favourable and progressive policies.

Progressive government policies can be instrumental in fostering private higher education institutions as effective partners in national and regional endeavours for social and economic development. Of course, government policy pledges need to be honoured to translate intentions into realities – an area where African countries are often cited for falling short.

All the same, African private higher education institutions will find it hard to respond to wider societal expectations without substantial support, both in the form of policies and of real action. Similarly, progressive policies to advance private higher education institutions ought to be meticulously implemented, without hampering the competitive spirit that drives private business.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Ethiopia. Emails: and Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education, leader of Higher Education and Training Development, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. Emails: and This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.