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In the expansion of higher education, the establishment of private, for-profit universities has become “almost a defining principle”.
So says Adebayo Olukoshi, director of the United Nations’ African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, who warned that the growth of the private sector was eroding universities’ role in the advancement of the continent when he addressed the inaugural Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit in Johannesburg earlier this year.
The essence of the university, Olukoshi argued, “rests more in the promotion of public purpose and not of private gain”, and rediscovering this mission will enable higher education to reclaim its rightful role in “the mobilisation of the citizenship which we require for the renaissance of the continent”.
Are these concerns justified? Has the private sector become too prevalent in sub-Saharan higher education?
Are standards too poor, and governments too weak to regulate? And can universities that focus on the individual rather than the societal benefits of higher education contribute to the development that the continent so desperately needs?
One thing that is certain is that there has been huge expansion of private provision of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa during the past 25 years.
In the aftermath of colonialism, the development of higher education was characterised by publicly funded national universities. However, while the number of public universities in the region doubled from approximately 100 to nearly 200 between 1990 and 2007, the rate of growth in the private sector in recent decades has been much faster. According to the 2009 World Bank report Accelerating Catch-up: Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of private universities and colleges, including for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, mushroomed from 24 to an estimated 468 over the same period.
More than half (53 per cent), it estimates, are found in francophone countries, with the largest numbers of institutions found in Senegal (41) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (39). About a third (34 per cent) are in anglophone countries, with 79 in South Africa alone.
The proportion of African undergraduates being educated in private universities has also increased. But since the majority of these institutions have fewer than 1,000 students, public universities are still in the lead on this measure.
The World Bank estimates that private enrolments account for 24 per cent of all tertiary enrolments in the region: 19 per cent in francophone countries, and 32 per cent in anglophone countries.
Jonathan Mba, director of research and academic planning at the Association of African Universities, attributes the rapid expansion of private higher education to the inability of governments and public universities to provide higher education places for a population that is growing quickly and includes an emerging middle class.
“Some years back, universities were few and people looking for education at a high level were few, but now demographics are coming into play,” Mba says. “More people are coming on board but [existing] universities are not expanding in a manner commensurate with demand for education.”
This increase in demand shows little sign of slowing. A separate World Bank report, Financing Higher Education in Africa (2010), predicts that the total number of students across Africa could reach between 18 and 20 million this year, up from 9.3 million in 2006, and 2.7 million in 1991.
There are other reasons for the expansion of private higher education in sub-Saharan Africa. Many private universities have been established by religious groups, particularly Christian churches, and these tend to be run on a not-for-profit basis. Character-building and promoting religious values are more important than making money for these institutions, which are very numerous in some countries. Daniel Levy, director of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education, based at the State University of New York Albany, estimates that religious universities account for four out of every five Kenyan private universities and two-thirds of private Nigerian institutions.
In addition, while public universities tend to remain more prestigious – all nine of the African universities that appear in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016 are public – complaints that their courses do not prepare students for the demands of industry are common.
Graduate unemployment is a significant problem across the region, with a British Council report published last year estimating that nearly a quarter of Nigerian graduates of working age were not in a job. It takes five years on average for a Kenyan graduate to secure a job, according to the report, Can Higher Education Solve Africa’s Job Crisis? Understanding Graduate Employability in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Many researchers argue that this is where private universities can play an important role, offering courses tailored to the demands of industries, in subjects such as business management, accounting, computer science and economics. Some private universities also have strong links with Western institutions, offering the opportunity to study or work overseas, which can make the qualifications that they offer more attractive.
Source: Times Higher Education