UNESCO-AU report places equity at the centre of policy

Africa continues to suffer from wealth and gender disparities when it comes to tertiary education. This is evident from the “highly variable quality” of private tertiary education institutions along with low levels of investment. Furthermore, the mismatch between the skills and education of employed youth requires better financial support by putting equity and quality at the heart of policy planning and investment decisions.

These are the main outcomes that emerged from the first edition of a joint UNESCO-African Union report titled Education in Africa – Placing equity at the heart of policy, released in February at a side event of the 36th African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The report provides a comprehensive analysis of the progress made by education systems (including universities) towards achieving the goals set out in the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 and Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4 – Quality education).

Low enrolment in tertiary education

Enrolment in African tertiary education has increased almost tenfold over the past five decades, but the supply still seems to be insufficient in meeting this demand. This is a consequence of the expansion of secondary education amid a growing youth population, according to the report.

In the vast majority of countries where data is available, the gross attendance ratio (GAR) in tertiary education is below 10%.

“Several priority economic sectors face a shortage of workers with the technical skills needed, especially in the fields of science and technology development,” the report points out.

Available data on the incidence of skill and educational mismatches of employed youth from 10 African countries suggest a high prevalence of under-education (57%) and under-skilling (29%) but also some over-education (8%) and over-skilling (18).

Diversification of the tertiary education landscape

The report points out that low levels of investment in tertiary education institutions are also of concern because of the growing demand for post-secondary education, which in some countries has led to the “diversification” of the tertiary education landscape.

“At times, this is marked by ‘the elevation of often poorly resourced public institutions to university status’, and the emergence of a vast number of disparate private tertiary education institutions.”

The number of universities on the African continent increased from 784 in 2000 to 1,682 in 2018. Much of this increase has occurred in the private sector.

“The increase in the number of private tertiary education institutions and their ‘highly variable quality’ have raised some concerns and led to policy attention being paid to regulatory framework, accreditation and quality assurance mechanisms, and to building enabling operating environments for private providers to accommodate a growing demand from young people.”

These include the Pan-African Quality Assurance and Accreditation Framework championed by the AU and which focuses on the harmonisation of higher education programmes along with the creation of higher education institution hubs under the Pan African University.

Expenditure on tertiary education

The Education 2030 Framework for Action sets expenditure on education at 4%-6% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and-or 15%-20% of total government expenditure.

An analysis of government expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP suggests sizeable differences across countries. While Ethiopia spends about half of its education budget on tertiary education, Mauritius spends only about 5%.

Tanzania stands out as the country with the lowest attendance ratio in tertiary studies, while spending only 0.7% of its GDP on this level of education.

The AU sets a target of 1% of GDP to be invested on research and development, but several African countries, including middle-income countries like South Africa and Tunisia, and low-income countries like Burkina Faso and Senegal, are already above the 0.5% level and continue to push upwards, according to the report.

Wealth-based disparities

An analysis of wealth disparities in accessing tertiary education reveals several notable findings, according to the report.

Firstly, in countries where the overall GAR is lower than 5% (such as Chad, Guinea Bissau, Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania), young people who are not from the wealthiest households (poorest households, lower-middle and upper-middle wealth households) have a close to zero chance of attending tertiary education.

“However, broadly speaking, as the GAR in tertiary education increases, it also does so for young people from upper-middle wealth households and, to a lesser extent, for those from lower-middle wealth households.”

It is only in the three countries where the overall GAR is around or above 20% that the attendance ratio of young people from the poorest households goes above 5%.

“This is still significantly lower than the GAR for young people from the wealthiest households in these countries (about one-sixth in Tunisia [9% vs 54%]; about one-fourth in Egypt [14% vs 50%]; and about one-eighth in South Africa [5% vs 41%]).”

Thus, “while wealth-based disparities in accessing tertiary education are sizeable and pervasive, the size of the wealth gap between young people from the poorest households and the wealthiest households varies across countries,” the report notes.

For example, countries including Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Uganda are characterised by relatively smaller wealth-based disparities when compared to countries including Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Nigeria, which are characterised by relatively larger wealth-based disparities in tertiary education access.

“The size of wealth disparities in accessing tertiary education can be related to several supply and demand side factors, including the availability of private provision of tertiary education, the availability of scholarships and loans, and governments’ budget allocation decisions.”

Gender disparities

In only a few countries in Africa, including Cameroon, Lesotho and Madagascar, women and men have equal opportunities to attend tertiary education, according the report. “For all other countries, we observe gender disparities.”

Furthermore, “for the majority of them, the disparities favour men, and these differences are particularly sizeable in Benin, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Togo”.

In a handful of countries, including Ethiopia, Sao Tomé and Principe, but especially in South Africa and Tunisia, gender disparities in tertiary education attendance favour women, according to the report.

“However, even in Tunisia and South Africa, women’s labour force participation rates lag behind that of men, although the size of the gap between male-female labour participation rates decreases as the education level increases.”

Gender differences also exist in the types of career programmes attended by young women and men, the report added.

“An observably higher proportion of women are enrolled in health-welfare, education, arts and humanities, and social sciences, while there is a much higher proportion of men enrolled in engineering-manufacturing and ICT-related programmes.”

Equity as a next frontier

A common challenge facing tertiary education in Africa, according to the report, is that it often benefits students from wealthier, more educated and urban backgrounds.

“Also, though gender parity has improved , progress has been slow, especially in lower-income African countries and in STEM fields where females are still underrepresented.”

Consequently, the report points out, “it is of the utmost importance that pan-African efforts like African Higher Education Centers of Excellence further prioritise equity through need-based scholarships, targeted outreach programmes, and information campaigns in their expansion strategy”.

“At the tertiary education level, flexible learning pathways for getting into (alternative access), going through (transition), and getting out of tertiary education (graduation and employment) can offer flexible and inclusive options for more equity and efficiency in the provision of tertiary education services,” the report suggests.