How to alleviate academic staff shortages in Africa – Study

A new study on ways to end faculty shortages in universities in Africa is calling for an end to the duplication of academic programmes and abandoning the aggressive marketing of degrees and diplomas with “low academic rigour” – among measures that authorities could take to tame the crisis.

The study calls on institutions to undertake a cost-impact analysis of their staffing needs, and urges them to adopt a contractual recruitment model for non-technical staff, to free money for important areas, including research and faculty recruitment.

This, it says, will enable the effective allocation of faculty, efficient utilisation and maximisation of available resources, thereby eventually increasing, not only the quality of graduates, but the levels of research as well.

The report, Addressing Faculty Challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, by Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA), provides several measures taken by different countries and universities as examples of what could be done to overcome the staffing challenge.

Coming as a follow-up to a previous report titled, Demographics of African Faculty – Lessons from East Africa Community (DAF-EAC) that focused on the faculty crisis in East Africa, it calls for the institutionalisation of adjunct (contract or part-time) faculty development as well as the introduction of professor emeritus positions in universities to help ease pressure on available teaching staff.

“This report feeds into a study about the Demographics of African Faculty (DAF)1 in the East African Community. It presents examples of approaches to addressing faculty challenges that could be used by other education leaders and-or policymakers. These examples are framed as observations and potential solutions, since data on effectiveness of these approaches and their costs were, in general, unavailable,” it notes.

“From ESSA colleagues’ literature searches and analyses, it is evident that African governments and higher education institutions have focused more on addressing challenges arising from the demand side of higher education-student enrolment, and less so on challenges that the institutions face with respect to faculty,” its authors add.

Cap on undergraduates

Controversially, the study also recommends for increased postgraduate enrolment while capping the number of undergraduates universities admit, but providing an evidence-informed cap while doing so.

It urges enhancement of development of faculty members through strong regional partnerships, Centres of Excellence, blended learning approaches and entrenching innovative pedagogy, as well as organising “effective doctoral and postdoctoral programmes”, residential training schools and workshops.

It cites the involvement of the private sector in the training of faculty and students in the use of technology and infrastructure development, while calling for a rethink in curriculum delivery modes, by making it “learner-centred rather than content-centred”.

Equally important is the need to establish a “transformative” approach to developing the future generation of academics by creating an estimation, planning and development framework to recruit, support and retain faculty.

While calling for striking the right balance between investment in physical infrastructure and e-resources for teaching, it also pitches for mainstreaming of gender in curricula and creating of “conducive networks” to enable female academics to thrive.

“Over the past decade, population growth and economic development have increased demand for tertiary education, leading to a rise in student enrolment in higher education institutions. This, however, has not been met with a commensurate increase in faculty capacity, both in number and with respect to gender parity,” the study, authored by Antony Mbithi and Samuel Agyapong, acknowledges.

“In other parts of Sub-Sahara Africa, heavy teaching loads leave little or no time for research, and many faculty members teach part-time in private institutions after work. Furthermore, low salaries make it difficult to attract or retain qualified faculty, and existing ones are either about to retire or have significant administrative duties,” it finds.

Duplicate programmes

The small number of graduate students being produced by African institutions, it observes, has had an adverse effect on the “pipeline” for recruiting future faculty.

On “low-rigour” degrees, it gives the example of Kenya, where some programmes were not attracting sufficient students while overburdened faculty were expected to teach the few students. As they were neither cost- nor time-effective, the Commission for University Education advised their removal, the study notes.

“There are also academic programmes in the local universities that were similar or in some cases duplicated. Such a situation is not ideal either, given the insufficient staff and inadequate facilities. Authorities are reviewing and cancelling duplicate academic programmes, to enable higher education institutions to allocate faculty effectively, utilise existing resources efficiently, and increase the quality of graduates,” it adds.

In the same country, the percentage of non-technical staff was found to be much higher than that of technical staff, meaning that most of the budget went to activities directly unrelated to universities’ mandate. Authorities responded by adopting models, such as outsourcing non-technical functions and having “fixed tenure tracks” for staff employment, followed by an employment freeze.

In Uganda, Makerere University is offloading single-subject degree courses in social sciences and humanities, including those that have not attracted students over several years. Among them are secretarial, tourism and hospitality degrees “designed for a job market demand that failed to materialise or failed to attract students”.

Part-time faculty

Using the case of Kenya, one of the select countries featured in the study, it makes a strong case for part-time lecturers, noting that many universities hire them to cut costs, making a comparison with the developed countries where the non-fulltimers are a critical part of the teaching force.

It observed: “For example, 70% of Australia’s first-year classes are taught by part-time faculty, and 60% of part-timers teach 60% of all courses in universities in the United States. While the part-time positions in those non-African countries are mostly used as pathways to tenure-track positions, in Kenya, 60% of part-time faculty take the positions to supplement their income.”

To cut costs, higher education institutions employ part-time faculty providing affordable labour and “bringing fresh-life examples to the classroom” for those who are industry practitioners. It warns that a lack of professional development and training for part-timers could be detrimental to learners and the universities in the long run, particularly in terms of quality.

It proposes proper orientation of the staff into the academic community to help them “bond” with the full-time faculty, integrating them in decision-making, and offering them opportunities for development and training to improve their teaching.

“To counter the challenges that come with teaching, part-timers should be trained in course design and teaching models, as well as how to communicate with students and the administration,” the authors advise.

Emeritus professors

The study also found out that, in Tanzania, the Commission for Universities introduced the position of ‘Professor Emeritus’. Courtesy of the position, universities engage retired professors to contribute to their disciplines’ “accumulated knowledge and wisdom”, providing mentorship to junior academics and graduate students.

On capping student admissions while increasing postgraduate enrolment, Makerere was found to have capped numbers at 25,000 students per year, focusing more on postgraduate enrolment and research. This increased postgraduate enrolment to 40% from 30%.

This gradual focus on increasing postgraduate enrolment resulted in increasing the number of teaching and research staff with PhDs rising from 40% in 2012 to 51% as of 2019.

It recommends several measures to end gender disparities, noting that increasing access for both genders at undergraduate levels alone eventually leads to more female faculty, citing Zambia in 2020, when the government scrapped bursaries that were thought to be discriminative in favour of student loans. This would improve the pipeline for female graduate students, hence future faculty.

In Ghana, where gender disparities, as in most countries, were evident in numbers, promotions and trends in female postgraduate academic qualifications, it was noted that some women rose through the ranks and became heads of departments and deans through strong academic networks.

It praises South Africa’s Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework as an example of comprehensive government-led reform as a comprehensive, transformative approach with potential to develop future generations of academics.