Gender inequality, decline in expenditure hamper enrolment

African universities are expected to help tackle challenges facing African society and realise the aspirations of the Africa Agenda 2063 and the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals 2030 in the current context of globalisation of higher education, education experts from the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) say.

Unfortunately, there have been substantial challenges affecting higher education in Africa, notably the disparities in gender inclusion, limiting the potential of women, and the decline in average public expenditure per tertiary education student, making Sub-Saharan Africa’s tertiary education enrolment ratio the lowest in the world.

The latest edition of the African Journal of Rural Development on Higher Education in Africa: Current status and perspectives for inclusive transformation published on 8 July 2021, contains nine papers addressing issues related to higher education in Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Zambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan.

In particular, the issue brings insight into the future of the African University, the importance of regional academic training programmes, the gender disparities in participation in science, technology, and innovation (STI), and the mechanisms for financing and strengthening higher education in Africa.

Initiatives needed to strengthen STI

In their article, ‘Higher Education in Africa: Current status and perspectives for inclusive transformation’, the authors, Sylvanus Mensah and Adipala Ekwamu of RUFORUM, reviewed the opportunities for a better future for African higher education based on global and regional trends influencing reforms in the HE sector and propose necessary policy interventions to realise that future.

According to Mensah and Ekwamu, to increase African universities’ competitiveness, appropriate continental initiatives are needed to strengthen science, technology, and innovation.

Regarding gender participation in STI, the limited access of women to education (fewer than 20% of African women have access to education) is a major constraint to inclusive education and continental growth for the benefit of present and future generations.

The authors observed that female participation in STI education is still low and declines sharply at the graduate and academic leadership levels. For instance, in Uganda, despite action to increase female enrolment in higher education, participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes is still limited and only 28% of academic and research positions are occupied by women.

Enrolment of women in STI remains low

Similar observations are made in a 2019 baseline report about countries such as Mozambique where the number of women students at higher level remains low compared to men.

To resolve the situation, the authors, Nicia Giva and Luisa Santos, recommend policy frameworks at national and institutional level that target the overall education pipeline and provide a facilitating environment that supports students in an STI analysis using a gender-based assessment of the STI ecosystem in Zambia through a desktop review and key stakeholder discussions approach.

The government of Zambia has developed policies and strategies to encourage female participation in STI, but it remains low. They recommended several critical actions for promoting women leadership in STI-oriented careers.

“In Zambia, it was reported that the enrolment in STI fields is skewed toward men, and more students and lecturers are encountered in the natural sciences, while health sciences, agriculture and engineering record a significantly low participation by women,” the authors said. Women are barely present in the field of engineering.

In his article ‘Gender-based assessment of Science, Technology and Innovation ecosystem in Ethiopia’, Dereje K Moges found that the participation of women in the STI ecosystem is low in Ethiopia.

Undergraduate female enrolment in science and technology ranged from 31% in 2014-15 to 34% in 2018-19, while that of postgraduate women declined from 31% to 16% in the same period. Of academic staff, 19.3%, 11.2% and 6.9% of women were holders of a first degree, masters and PhD degrees in science and technology fields of study, respectively. Similarly, low participation was observed in the research and industry sectors.

The author attributed the low participation to a lack of academic preparation for STEM fields, attitude toward science fields, a lack of women’s self-confidence, a lack of women role model scientists, a lack of adequate support from higher education institutions, and gender disparity in employment.

The author suggested that collaborative effort from STI stakeholders is critical to implement gender equality-related policies and strategies in the country.

Funding and building capacity are key

Regarding financing and strengthening higher education in Africa, the majority of higher education institutions offer technical training followed by university training and pedagogical training. Most institutions, particularly the private ones, are largely dependent on family funding.

“The challenges for higher education include limited academic autonomy in selecting leaders and designing programme curricula, proliferation of the institutions and a plethora of administrative staff, both in the ministry and in the higher education institutions,” Mensah and Ekwamu wrote.

To strengthen the sector, they recommend ensuring adequate funding of the education system and its future expansion and building the capacity of higher education institutions, academic and administrative staff, through South-South and North-South partnerships.

The authors noted that the current increase in resource allocation to universities seems to be mainly due to an increase in the number of public tertiary institutions.

For example, in Uganda, the level of funding at the tertiary education level (0.3%) does not reflect the aspirations of the second national development plan (1% of GDP). The authors suggested that the current public finance model should consider the return to the investment approach and not merely look at the provision of social services.

“For a country like Uganda that has 63% of the total population below the age of 24 years and 50% below the age of 15 years, human capital development through purposive skilling and knowledge formation is critical to achieving the aspirations of its vision 2040 enrolment and numbers,” the authors noted.

“As such, for the country to achieve its expansionary goals for the HE sector in a financially sustainable manner, it is imperative that the government increase development funding to the institutions considering the vast growth of the subsector and rapid changes in technology.

“Similarly, more investment funding needs to be made in research and outreach for the higher education sector to leverage their impact in society.”