Evidence on education in the early years needs greater prioritisation in sub-Saharan Africa

To provide up-to-date information on research available for the purposes of education planning, the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the charity Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA), has updated the African Education Research Database. The database, launched in 2017, contains peer-reviewed publications on education by researchers from 48 sub-Saharan African countries (excluding South Africa). In addition, our story published by ADEA a year ago highlighted the importance of listening to African researchers to ensure evidence from the continent informs education policy and practice

This new story builds on the previous analyses by drawing on findings from the latest update to the database, which now includes a bibliometric analysis of over 5,000 publications. The database contains articles published between 2010 and 2021 in journals with international coverage and an impact factor of at least 0.2, according to SCImago data. We use the impact factor as a proxy for the quality of the journals, erring on the side of inclusion. We have chosen this focus because discussions with  Africa-based researchers have highlighted that an international journal's impact factor is vital in informing their decision about where to publish. This is partly because publications in 'higher 'impact' journals are considered positive for career progression in African higher education institutions. The same methodology is used to identify publications across all periods.

A steep increase in the number of publications in recent times

Between 2018 and 2021, the number of new publications per year more than quadrupled (Figure 1).  

Figure 1. Annual publications in the African Education Research Database from 2010 to 2021

Ever-increasing focus on higher education 

By the most recent period (2019-2021), almost half of all publications were on higher education, with a notable decline in those on primary education. By contrast, the proportion of publications on early childhood education has barely changed and remains extremely low (Figure 2).  

Figure 2. Phase of education

Between 2020 and 2021, seven percent of publications in the database focused on COVID-19. Similar to the overall pattern, more than half of recent publications focused on COVID-19 are on higher education, with only 12 percent focused on primary education and just seven percent on early childhood education (Figure 3). This is despite concerns that school closures have particularly hit foundational literacy and numeracy in the early years due to the pandemic.

Figure 3. Publication on COVID-19

More articles from Africa-based researchers being published in higher-impact journals

Figure 4 presents patterns of publications in 'lower 'impact' journals (0.2 to 0.39 impact factor) and 'higher 'impact' journals (an impact factor of 0.4 or higher). We find an increased proportion of publications in 'higher 'impact' journals by 35%, from 43% in 2010-2013 to 78% in 2019-2020. 

Figure 4. Impact factor of journals

Early childhood education receives the least external funding 

Not only is early childhood education a tiny proportion of overall publications, but an extremely small proportion of these publications receive external funding. On the other hand, a larger proportion of primary education publications received external funding, although this only amounts to one-quarter of the publications (Figure 5). In total, only 16 percent of studies provided sources of funding. 

We manually checked individual publications to identify which publications were based on externally funded research. Since some publishers do not require authors to disclose the source of funding, the actual proportion of funded studies may be under-reported. But it is a real concern for many researchers in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, underfunding was raised in a recent survey where 77 percent of researchers in a public university in Ghana mentioned that they conduct research with personal finances.

Figure 5. Phase of education and funding of publications

So far, we have identified an impressive increase in education publications by scholars in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in higher-impact journals. This demonstrates the capacity of African researchers to produce high-quality research when the proper financial support is provided. However, there is an ongoing concern that the early years of education, providing the foundation for the future, remain a small proportion of publications. 

We hope that the African Education Research Database will help to identify priorities as countries seek to reform their education systems in the light of COVID-19, as well as to identify priority areas for funding needs, with greater priority needed for funding to the early years. 

The African Education Research Database can be accessed here.