Challenges and prospects of Africa’s higher education

A stronger collaboration and partnership between industry and academic institutions of higher learning in Africa is imperative to address the multiple challenges confronting higher education in this region.

University of Ghana students listen to their political science professor, Dr. Evans Aggrey-Darkoh in Accra, Ghana on October 14, 2015. <br>CREDIT: DOMINIC CHAVEZ/WORLD BANK

This is the fifth blog post in a series of collaborations between ADEA the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

Africa has an estimated 1,650 higher education institutions, many of them facing challenges that require the intervention of various stakeholders, national governments and development partners in order for the students to maximize their learning outcomes and contribute effectively to the workforce.

Perhaps with the exception of South Africa and countries in Northern Africa, Africa’s economic downturn –in the latter part of the 1970s and beyond, the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and the brain drain that followed– severely affected the performance of African higher education institutions and curtailed their capacity to deliver quality higher education.

Many of these institutions went into decline in terms of the quality of teaching, research and research output. In the process, they became less effective in regard to their ability to contribute to the socio-economic development of their host country.

The challenges facing higher education in Africa

Higher education in Africa is under-developed and has been a low priority for the past two decades. Access to higher education for the relevant age group remains at 5%, the lowest regional average in the world, just one-fifth of the global average of about 25%.

Women are underrepresented in higher education, in particular in the science and technology fields. In regards to quality, not a single Western and Central African university features in the rankings of the world’s best 500 academic institutions.

Further, a backlog of reforms has accumulated over the last decades. A key consequence of underdeveloped higher education institutions is also high rates of migration of talent out of Africa in pursuit of training and research opportunities abroad.

The contradiction of unemployed graduates and a lack of skilled workforce

Currently, most African countries face shortages of human resources and capacity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as well as agriculture and health disciplines (International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering 2013; Montenegro and Patrinos 2012; World Bank 2007).

The current pattern of skills production in Africa does not match labor market demand or development needs. The recent trend in African higher education is the low percentage of graduates in areas of engineering, agriculture, health and science.

While graduates of many African higher educational institutions go unemployed, substantial shortages of skilled labor persist. The challenge is to increase both the quantity and the quality of graduates through investments in laboratories and human resources for these disciplines, improve the link with employers to raise relevance and foster strong international collaboration to raise quality.

Lack of investment has meant that higher education institutions of Africa are currently not capable of responding to the immediate skill needs or supporting sustained productivity-led growth in the medium term.

Causes of the disconnect between supply and demand

The reasons are a disconnect with the needs and skill demands of the economy, no critical mass of quality faculty, insufficient sustainable financing, and shortcomings in governance and leadership (Alabi and Mba 2012).

More broadly, there is inadequate regional specialization of the higher education systems in Western and Central Africa, as well as other regions of Africa.

Higher education in Africa faces severe constraints in terms of attaining critical mass of quality faculty. The average percentage of staff with PhD in public higher education institutions in Africa is estimated to be less than 20%(Soucat et al. 2013; Chronicle of Higher Education 2013).

Many departments do not have more than 1 or 2 senior professors; many close to the retirement age. This prevents departments and universities from being able to provide relevant higher education training (in part to develop faculty themselves), and establishing vibrant research environments.

Moreover, low salaries of faculty, lack of research funding and equipment, as well as limited autonomy provide disincentives for professors to stay in African universities. Academic disruptions due to strikes by staff and/or students arising from a number of factors including poor administrative leadership and lack of resources are other challenges confronting African higher education (ACE Report, 2016).

How to revitalize higher education in Africa

As the African economies started to recover, coupled with the recent recognition by the World Bank Group and other development agencies of the important role higher education can play in the socio-economic development process of Africa, and a resurgence of interest in African higher education, it became imperative to accelerate the recovery and revitalization of higher education institutions across the continent.

The Association of African Universities (AAU) together with its partners, while playing a catalytic role in the revitalization process, designed a series of interventions meant to ameliorate the difficult situation higher education institutions face.

These interventions have been the key areas of:

  • institutional leadership and management;
  • Academic mobility, including the African diaspora;
  • ICT development for teaching, learning and research;
  • making African theses and other scholarly works available to the wider audience in and outside Africa;
  • graduate fellowships and small grants for PhD support;
  • linking universities to the productive sectors of the economy, giving support to African higher education institutions to assist their host countries achieve the sustainable development goals through policy research.

Initiatives such as the Africa Centers of Excellence, Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering & Technology, the Pan African University, Harmonization of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation are part of various efforts to improve African Higher Education and must be supported financially and in other ways.

Promoting collaboration between industry and academic institutions

There is the need for a stronger collaboration and partnership between industry and academic institutions of higher learning in Africa to address the multiple challenges confronting higher education. 

Investments into higher education should ensure that the governance framework is conducive to excellence, providing reasonable financial autonomy, and enhance accountability of the institution and the governing body.

Institutions should promote internal decentralization in the administration of resources, and promote the use of management information systems and transparency in administration, use of resources, and communication of results.