Funding of HE: Replace monologues with candid conversations

In a recent article in University World News, it was reported that Zimbabwe’s minister of higher and tertiary education blamed universities for the widely bemoaned low levels of state funding.

He apparently claimed universities would readily access more funding if they responded proactively to the socio-economic needs of society.

Blaming universities for their woes has grown almost in proportion to the decline in public support.

Yet, the ability of universities to do what they are accused of not doing, largely depends on the role of the external actors themselves, principally the state, business and civil society.

In the Annual Adebayo Adedeji Lecture that I delivered at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development on 17 May 2022, I outlined in detail the roles of the various stakeholders in addressing the multiple challenges facing African universities.

In this article, I will focus on two – funding and research – and the kinds of interventions that need to be made by the key stakeholders.

First, there’s limited institutional supply. Despite the remarkable expansion of the higher education sector, Africa’s share of the world’s 20,137 universities listed by the World Higher Education Database of the International Association of Universities in 2021 was a mere 8.4% compared to Asia’s 39.8%.

In 2020, the tertiary enrolment ratio for Sub-Saharan Africa was 9% against a world average of 40%, and 41% for Middle East and North Africa (it was 38% for middle-income and 79% for high-income countries).

UNESCO data shows the continent’s 14.6 million tertiary students in 2020 represented only 6.6% (of which North Africa accounted for 41.9%) of the global total of 220.7 million.

Second, human capital remains deficient, especially in terms of faculty as not enough graduates with terminal degrees are being produced to join the professoriate. Deteriorating remuneration and working conditions have not only made academic careers less attractive but rising student-faculty ratios in many African universities have gravely undermined educational quality.

Third, teaching infrastructures are often suboptimal. Physical facilities do not always match growth in enrolments and academic programmes, and deferred maintenance is rampant. Underinvestment in electronic infrastructure became cruelly evident under COVID-19 that led to campus closures, which made it difficult for many African universities to pivot to online teaching.

Fourth, leadership and governance systems are regularly compromised by external interventions, politicisation and incompetence. This is evident in the appointment of vice-chancellors in which leadership qualities are often trumped by political considerations, which exacerbates internal dysfunctions, authoritarianism and corruption. Opportunities for leadership development are often lacking.

Fifth, as universities expand and their internal and external stakeholders become more disparate and their conflicting demands grow, institutional contestations over resources as well as equity, diversity and inclusion intensify. The manifestations of these pressures range from disciplinary struggles between the humanities, sciences and professions to student and staff protests and disaffection.

Sixth, the quality of graduates remains problematic as evident in persistent mismatches between university education and economic needs that translate into high levels of unemployability.

Digital skills and lifelong learning are increasingly critical, yet instructors and institutions remain wedded to traditional curricula, pedagogies, and ways of doing business. Employers hardly invest in buying talent, rather than building it in partnership with the universities.

Seventh, African universities face the challenges of asymmetrical internationalisation and the need to promote decolonisation and indigenisation at intellectual, institutional and ideological levels. This entails developing more expansive, equitable, empowering, and transformative meanings and models of transnational and inter-institutional partnerships in teaching, research, service and innovation.

Eighth, African universities do not fare well in international higher education rankings. While rankings are rightly critiqued for sanctifying global academic capitalism and the supremacy of research-intensive universities, they are increasingly critical in the competition for high quality students, faculty and resources. In the Times Higher Education 2021 World University Rankings, only 60 African universities were included among the 1,500 listed.

Resource challenges

Getting an accurate picture of funding for higher education globally and across Africa is difficult because of the lack of adequate and comparative data.

A report by Higher Education Strategy Associates, 2022 World Higher Education: Institutions, Students, and Funding, paints a complex picture. The report shows five key trends.

First, total public spending on higher education, in real purchasing power parity, increased from US$615.5 billion in 2006 to US$992.4 billion in 2018. Much of this growth occurred from 2006 to 2010. The Global North accounted for 56% of total public spending in 2018, down from 69% in 2006.

Second, there were pronounced discrepancies within the Global South, where expenditure more than doubled between 2006 and 2018, from US$192.7 billion to US$434.5 billion. Much of the growth occurred in East Asia that accounted for 46% of the super-region’s public higher education expenditures in 2018, followed by the MENA (Middle East-North Africa) region (18.3%), Latin America (16.4%), South Asia (14.7%) and, at the bottom, was Sub-Saharan Africa (4.9%).

Third, expenditures per student fell in all regions although, predictably, expenditures remained higher in the Global North than in the Global South, approximately US$9,500 in 2018 compared to just under US$3,000, respectively. In the Global South, expenditures were highest in the MENA region (US$4,324), followed by Latin America (US$3,209), East Asia (US$3,198), Sub-Saharan Africa (US$3,030), and South Asia (US$1,575).

Fourth, most students around the world, about 90%, pay to attend higher education, up by 1.4% since 2006. Fee regimes are quite diverse. Only in six countries was higher education fully free, at least for domestic students and, in another six, less than half of the students paid fees. These countries were concentrated in the Global North, where international students were charged exorbitant differential fees.

In the Global South, South and East Asian countries place the greatest emphasis on fees, and countries in the MENA region the least. Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa showed the greatest diversity of approaches, combining countries that were largely fee-free versus those that were fee-reliant.

However, “When data on GDP per capita are added to the analysis, Sub-Saharan African jurisdictions appear less affordable, while East Asian countries, Vietnam aside, emerge as relatively more affordable. South Africa may, in fact, be the least affordable jurisdiction for studies in the world by our measures.”

Fifth, government-supported direct student financial aid plays a critical role. Globally, it averaged US$280 billion in the 2010s comprising loans (65%) and grants (35%). These include merit or need-based scholarships. Countries in the Global South that cover a very large portion of students include Algeria, Burkina Faso, China and Morocco.

The greatest expansion of programmes between 2006 and 2018 occurred in China and the Philippines, while the greatest reductions were in Algeria, Kenya and South Africa, where grants failed to keep up with rising enrolments.

Government commitments

Clearly, across Africa there is room for improvement in university funding through strategies undertaken by the key stakeholders including governments, the private sector, philanthropists and the universities, themselves. As policymakers, governments can significantly impact four key dimensions of funding that affect the financing of universities.

First, government student aid schemes should mostly focus on those who most need it. Public agencies that provide student loans can be strengthened in terms of better targeting, resource mobilisation and improved loan recovery through raising awareness and incorporating income-contingent provisions in loan-repaying schemes, which tend to have higher repayment rates.

Second, governments can develop innovative taxation policies to fund universities. An example is the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund) introduced in 2001, which is funded by a percentage of the national Value Added Tax, to enhance primary, secondary and, particularly, tertiary education. Under the scheme, 20% of VAT is paid into the GETFund account. Assessments indicate that it has made significant contributions, notwithstanding persistent challenges.

Third, governments need to create enabling conditions at the national level in terms of policy and legislation. African governments must strengthen their non-profit laws that affect the philanthropic sector.

In many countries, the legal status of philanthropic institutions is imprecise and there are very few incentives for either corporate or individual giving including to higher education institutions. There is a need to distinguish between philanthropic institutions and other civil society organisations, and among different kinds of philanthropic institutions.

Fourth, African governments must implement their long-held pledges to increase research and development (R&D) expenditures, which would benefit universities as the premier knowledge-producing institutions.

In numerous national, regional, continental and global science, technology, and innovation (STI) policy agendas, African governments must be pressed to meet their commitments to invest at least 1% of GDP.

This goal was set when global R&D expenditures were lower than now. And, given the fact that Africa’s STI indicators are so low as will be shown in the next section, and the pressures for the continent not to be left behind in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as it was in the previous three industrial revolutions, it is imperative to revise this target upwards.

Fifth, African governments can facilitate the mobilisation of diaspora financial and intellectual resources. The new diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor. In 2019, diaspora remittances reached US$84,280 billion before they fell in 2020 due to the pandemic.

In December 2021, African ministers of finance endorsed the establishment of the African Diaspora Finance Corporation (ADFC), which was approved by the African Union Executive in February 2022.

The ADFC can serve as a vehicle to generate resources for strengthening research, higher education, and STI capacities on the continent in collaboration with the diaspora.

African universities also have responsibilities to promote financial sustainability by pursuing the following six strategies.

First, they need to cultivate alternative revenue streams, which include auxiliary services, income-generating activities and philanthropic donations. Some institutions have embarked on establishing enterprises often unconnected to their core mission as teaching and research institutions.

More sustainable are activities tied to their capabilities, including generating research grants, establishing consultancies, partnering with think tanks and providing continuing education and lifelong learning programmes.

Second, universities need to strengthen their fundraising commitments, cultures and capabilities. With some notable exceptions, fundraising is grossly underdeveloped in most African universities.

There must be commitment from the entire institution, especially the management and governing boards, which in societies with strong university fundraising cultures can raise up to a third in capital campaigns through give or get.

The culture of giving must be cultivated among students, employees and alumni, the source of up to 70% of external funds to universities in the United States and other countries with rich fundraising traditions.

Third, inter-institutional collaborations provide critical opportunities through the establishment of consortia with local, regional and international partners in which institutions leverage each other’s assets, specialisations and interests to promote quality education and high-impact research.

In addition, partnerships can facilitate cost-sharing and bargaining in the procurement of expensive technological infrastructures and instructional materials. Moreover, it can promote talent development and facilitate the mobility of students, faculty, credit transfer and the development of innovative inter-institutional programmes and best practices.

Fourth, strengthening external partnerships with non-academic sectors and organisations is likely to pay dividends. Particularly important are partnerships with the private sector.

As financial and political pressures mount and higher education institutions seek to focus on their core academic functions, many universities have increasingly outsourced the financing, design, building and maintenance of facilities and some services.

But universities must be discerning in establishing these partnerships to avoid being exploited and undermining the quality of the student experience.

Internal and external players

Critical external players also include African international and intergovernmental agencies that often play second fiddle to their foreign counterparts in funding university activities and formulating higher education policies. The role of the World Bank in African tertiary education is well known, the African Development Bank must become more active.

Fifth, the financial challenges facing universities require the adoption of more sophisticated and transparent budgeting models to ensure efficient utilisation of limited resources. The cancer of corruption that permeates African governments and societies also impacts many higher education institutions and needs to be ruthlessly curtailed through periodic forensic and regular auditing by reputable accounting firms.

Finally, the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem entails embracing experimentation and not being afraid to fail and learn from failure in a continuously iterative and action-oriented process; creating a culture of inquisitiveness, innovative and critical thinking at all levels; normalising transformational thinking by rewarding entrepreneurial managers, employees, and administrators; encouraging collaboration internally by breaking silos and through strategic external partnerships; and developing the propensity to recognise opportunities by paying keen attention to market changes and demands for new forms of learning and skills in the economy and society.

Civil society has an equally important role to play. The old adage that nations get the leadership they deserve applies to higher education institutions. Countries get the universities they deserve.

Contrary to popular opinion, universities are not ivory towers sequestered in splendid isolation; they reflect and reproduce the prevailing values and structures of their societies. Societies that demand high-quality education must support high-quality educational institutions.

This is a call for serious and sustained public debate on higher education, on the education African societies and stakeholders, including the exploding youth population. want for building a new social contract for universities.

More concretely, the African elites must patronise and support African universities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the expansion of the middle classes was on a remarkable trajectory. It reflected the growth and development of African economies that raised demand for higher education and led to the remarkable growth in the number of universities and tertiary enrolments from the dawn of the 2000s.

At the same time, more and more of the African elites have been sending their children to overseas universities in the Global North and the emerging economies of Asia. This represents a vote of no confidence in the declining quality of many local universities, some of which produced these same elites.

By 2020, according to UNESCO data for Africa, there were almost three times as many outbound students as inbound students – 607,717 to 223,128 – representing 9.5% and 3.5% of the world’s 6.4 million international students, respectively.

Even more explosive has been the growth of high net-worth individuals (HNWIs, those with net assets of more than US$1 million). According to the World Wealth Report 2021, in 2018 there were 200,000 HNWIs in Africa with a combined wealth of US$1.8 trillion (0.96% out of the 20.8 million HNWIs globally and 2.26% of global HNWI wealth, totalling US$79.6 trillion).

Few of them donate to African universities as I know from personal experience as a former vice- chancellor in Nairobi, Kenya, which ranks among the top African countries with HNWIs.

Some of the charity-inclined billionaires have established foundations. However, their aggregate giving is eclipsed by North American and European foundations, after which they are modelled. In 2019, it was about US$2 billion, with donations in the $20,000-$25,000 range, mostly focused on service delivery, poverty reduction and infrastructure support. Education is low on their list of priorities, and higher education hardly features.

Further, the fundraising cultures, commitments, and capacities of most African universities are underdeveloped, which makes it hard to consistently cultivate the HNWIs compared to prestigious universities in the Global North where they are more likely to make donations that would be significant for an African university but are quite insignificant for the rich American and European institutions.

The need to build robust and resilient educational and health systems on the continent became all too apparent during the pandemic that led to border closures. The elites and their children in need of high-quality education and health services suddenly found themselves stranded at home.

This should have been a wake-up call that building strong universities and other social services on the continent is a social, development and historical imperative.

The continent’s unprecedented population growth which, on current trends, is slated to represent 25% of the world population in 2050 and 40% in 2100, promises a huge demographic dividend only if the youth is provided with high-quality education and employability skills. Africa cannot subcontract the education of its youth to higher education systems overseas.

Research underdevelopment

The challenges facing African universities noted above contribute to and are reflected in the continent’s low research output. Data from the UNESCO Science Report 2021 underscores the exponential rise of Asia at the expense of Europe and North America, while Africa continues to lag awfully behind. The reason is simple: Asian governments, businesses and civil societies, unlike those in Africa, have made research and development a strategic priority.

Between 2014 and 2018, gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) globally rose from US$1.5 trillion to US$1.8 trillion. The top dozen countries led by the United States, China, Japan, India, Germany, South Korea, France, United Kingdom, Taiwan, Russia, Brazil, and Italy, in that order, had one thing in common: strong investment by governments and business enterprises, with minimal contributions by higher educational institutions and private nonprofits (PNPs).

The UNESCO report shows that in 2018 Africa as a whole spent only 0.59% of GDP on research and development, compared to a world average of 1.79% (the Americas 2.12%, Europe 1.78%, and Asia 1.70%). Asia’s share of global GERD increased from 42.3% to 45.7%, while it fell for the Americas from 32.2% to 30.1% and for Europe from 23.3% to 22.1%. For Africa, it remained stagnant at 1%.

Africa’s relatively low levels of GERD translate into poor research infrastructures and knowledge production. From 2014 to 2018, the continent’s share of global researchers remained stagnant at 2.5%, while it rose for Asia from 42.7% to 44.5% and fell slightly for Europe from 31.4% to 31% and for the Americas from 23.1% to 21.7%.

The number of researchers per million inhabitants was exceptionally low in Africa, although it rose from 307.9 to 326.4. In Asia, the growth was from 845 to 969.9, for Europe from 3,034.4 to 3,372, and, for the Americas, from 2,046 to 2,131. As for scientific publications, between 2015 and 2019 Africa’s global share crawled from 2.8% to 3.5%, which was less than Canada’s 3.6%. For Asia, it escalated from 41.3% to 48%, and for Europe it dropped from 37.7% to 34.9% and, for the Americas, 30.3% to 27.6%.

Africa’s record of publications in cross-cutting strategic technologies, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, biotechnology, energy, materials, nanosciences and nanotech, and optoelectronics is even lower. It jumped from a mere 2.55% in 2015 to 3.11% in 2019. In contrast, Asia’s emerging global supremacy is evident in the fact that the region claimed 60.11% in these fields, up from 52.43%, compared to 33.41% up from 30.05% for Europe, and 22.13% up from 18.66% for the Americas.

The only area in which Africa claimed dubious distinction was in the category of publications with international co-authors, which reached 55.40% in 2019, up from 53.95% in 2015, against a world average of 21.69% in 2015 and 23.48% in 2019. Asia was close to the global trends at 22.61% to 24.43%, followed by the Americas at 34.99% to 39.44%, and then Europe at 37.35% to 41.14%, respectively. The international publications of African scholars were mostly with extra-regional collaborators, unlike the situation pertaining in other regions, a sad replica of the continent’s external dependency in trade, capital and technology.

Underinvestment in research and development produces low science, technology and innovation (STI) indicators. In terms of patents, according to data from the World Intellectual Property Organization, in 2018, Africa accounted for 17,000 patent applications, while Asia led globally with 2,221,800 applications, followed by North America with 663,300, Europe with 362,000, Latin America and the Caribbean with 56,000, and Oceania with 36,200.

For industrial design applications, Africa claimed 17,400. Again, Asia led with 914,900, followed by Europe with 301,300, North America with 54,000, Latin America and the Caribbean with 15,300 and Oceania with 9,700. Africa’s share of trademarks applications was 245,500, while Asia had 10,000,000, Europe 2,252,200, North America 827,800, Latin America and the Caribbean 751,000, and Oceania 199,600.

The data for utility model applications (a cheaper and shorter patent-like intellectual property model to protect inventions) is equally revealing. Africa had 1,050, Asia 2,097,500, Europe 40,773, Latin America and the Caribbean 4,391, and Oceania 2,246. In sum, in 2018, Africa accounted for 0.5%, 1.3%, 1.7% and 0.04% of global applications for patents, industrial design, trademarks and utility models, respectively.

African governments, business enterprises and universities have a shared responsibility to raise the research capacities and productivity of African universities and countries. The research ecosystem depends on the availability of adequate funding, motivated researchers, robust facilities, dynamic collaborations, strong intellectual property policies and effective dissemination and translation of research results into products and policy, and for social impact.

Among the world’s advanced economies, the primary support for research and development comes from business enterprises, followed by governments. According to the 2022 OECD Main Science and Technology Indicators, the largest share of GDP expenditure on R&D in OECD countries was financed by business enterprises (rose from 62.4% in 2005 to 63.8% in 2020), followed by government (fell from 29.5% to 23.9%), and remained static for higher education institutions and PNPs (4.9%).

For the only African country included in the report, South Africa, the contributions of the three sectors during the same period fell for business enterprises (43.9% to 27.1%), rose for government (38.2% to 56.3%), and fell for HEIs and PNPs (4.4% to 3% in 2019). R&D funding in most African countries comes from abroad, including philanthropic organisations that play a relatively negligible role in their own countries as evident in UNESCO’s factsheet, Global Investments in R&D for 2020.

African business enterprises and governments have a responsibility and stand to benefit from partnering with universities in undertaking research on pressing problems and the development of value chains. Governments require sound research to make effective policies and interventions.

For business, in-house and externally contracted R&D expenditures are a proven strategy for continuous innovation and competitiveness. The ability of African businesses to compete in their own domestic markets, let alone regional and international markets, depends on research-generated value addition.

African countries need specially designated research universities, which are distinguished by their commitment and capabilities to undertake high-impact research. Such universities must be fully supported by the key external stakeholders.

Faculty workload in those universities must allow ample time for research and scholarship, and appropriate recognition and rewards. Research universities also tend to have vibrant internal disciplinary and interdisciplinary research centres, institutes and graduate programmes, and strong inter-institutional, inter-sectoral, and international collaborations.

The diversification, differentiation, and articulation of higher education systems to better serve African students, economies, and societies are long overdue.

Research agendas in African universities must be focused on addressing the challenges and priorities identified in national, regional, continental and global development agendas, many of which overlap, including the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As noted in a report by UNESCO, Knowledge-driven actions: Transforming higher education for global sustainability, “Higher education institutions are uniquely positioned to contribute to the social, economic and environmental transformations that are required to tackle the world’s most pressing issues.”

The report advises universities to pursue “three main areas of HEI transformation: the need to move towards inter- and transdisciplinarity in education and research; the imperative need for institutions to become open, fostering epistemic dialogue and integrating other ways of knowing; and the demand for a much stronger presence in society in general, through proactive outreach activities and partnering with other societal actors, in order to build awareness of ecological deterioration and the SDGs in general, and to influence policy.”

Some of the report’s recommendations must be taken up by African governments. This includes establishing an SDG research and teaching fund “to support faculty and teaching grants and fellowships for programmes and projects related to the SDGs”.

Also helpful would be an SDG higher education institution benchmarking system, which “would qualitatively and quantitatively compare how HEIs advance different SDGs across the three areas of education, research and outreach, with highest recognition given to those that holistically address a large number of SDGs across all their activities”. So would establishing a database to track “academic collaborative modalities” as proposed at the Third Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia, and Latin America (HEFAALA) Symposium in April 2022.

The challenge and opportunity for Africa centres is to pursue big transformational projects on major problems facing society. Such projects can help develop and retain talent on the continent and accelerate development.

There must always be room for basic research in pursuit of knowledge whose utility is not always preordained. It is also critically important to mobilise the academic diaspora from both the continent’s historic and new diasporas and build international partnerships based on consortia arrangements and the principles of co-creation and mutuality of benefits.

Developing an ecosystem

A critical part of the agenda of forging productive synergies between universities, governments, business enterprises and other external stakeholders is the development of think tanks.

As I argued in a keynote address at a conference in October 2020 convened by the African Academy of Sciences and the African Institute for Development Policy, think tanks are critical as part of the continent’s research and transformation agenda.

They often serve as a powerful and generative space and bridge between academic and policymaking communities, governments, and civil society, and as translators of basic and applied research for policy actors and the public.

As with the other indicators examined above, Africa lags behind in the global landscape of think tanks. According to the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, in 2019 there were 8,248 think tanks around the world. Europe had the highest share, (27%), followed by North America (25%), Asia (22%), Central and South America (12%), Sub-Saharan Africa (7%), and the Middle East and North Africa (6%). The five leading African countries are South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Ghana, in that order.

The effectiveness of think tanks depends on their resource, utilisation, output, and impact indicators. Using these assessments, the report identifies top think tanks in different world regions, as well as by area of research and by special achievement.

Sixteen areas of research dominate: transparency and good governance; defence and national security; domestic economic policy; education policy; energy and resource policy; environment; foreign policy and international affairs; domestic health policy; global health policy; water and food security; international development; international economic policy; science and technology; social policy; water security; and food security. All these are critical for Africa’s development.

African think tanks and universities share many commonalities. They are both epistemic communities dedicated to the production, dissemination and consumption of knowledge in society. Moreover, both have grown rapidly in recent decades as the continent recovered from the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s. Further, they both suffer from serious resource deficits in terms of human capital, financial capital and technological capacities. Finally, their levels of research output remain relatively low compared to other world regions.

These deficits should serve as incentives and opportunities for serious and strategic engagement between African universities, think tanks, policymakers, business enterprises and civil society. The first three, especially, should pursue a multi-pronged agenda based on what I would call the 5Cs: capacity sharing, circulation of personnel, collaboration in research, communication as interconnected epistemic and policy communities, and commitment to the construction of productive, inclusive, and sustainable knowledge economies and societies.

The capacities that can be shared include resources, facilities and competencies. Universities and scholars focused on foundational and pure research can benefit from the applied research of think tanks and their translational capabilities, while the latter need the constant nourishment of such research; both serve the policy establishment and public. Continuous formal and informal circulation of professionals and expertise between academe, think tanks and policymaking organs reinforces their collective productivity and transformational potential.

The importance of this tripartite collaboration in research on pressing and long-term challenges facing society is self-evident. So is that of regular and relevant communication, as well as the shared commitment to the creation of innovative and sustainable knowledge-based societies and economies. Universities need to take their role as think tanks, and engagements with think tanks and policymakers seriously.

The agenda for building the capacities of African higher education institutions for the continent’s development and transformation is too serious for any of its stakeholders to indulge in solitary monologues. What is needed are conversations and collaborations that are candid, creative and constructive.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is currently the North Star distinguished professor and associate provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.