Africa’s higher education is in shambles. For many decades, African governments and development partners have marginalized vocational training and higher education.
The Darker summit on “Education for All” in 2000 for instance, prioritized basic education and adult literacy as a key driver of social welfare. Part of the reason higher education has been marginalized is because earlier studies by economists, including Milton Friedman, suggested that higher education yielded no social benefits beyond those accrued by the individuals.
In a review of 22 Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and 9 interim PRSPs from African countries, only two countries explicitly planned to increase funding for tertiary education budgets. Six PRSPs explicitly planned budget cuts. Donor agencies have abetted African governments’ neglect of higher education. For instance, international funding for higher education is on average US$ 600 million annually, or one quarter of all international aid to the education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Low enrollment rates exemplify persistent underinvestment in higher education. According to a UNESCO report published in 2009, gross enrollment in Africa’s higher education was just 5 %, compared to 11 % in India, 20 % in China and 70% in OECD countries.
Similarly, chronic underinvestment in higher education has precipitated further declines in quality and relevance of education, the quality of graduates and stifled scientific, technological and social innovation. Moreover, Africa’s peer reviewed research constitutes only 0.7 % of total global intellectual output. The implication is that African scholars are not doing enough to generate knowledge that could provide local solutions to urgent socio-economic, institutional, technological and environmental challenges.
Economic growth benefit of higher education is only one dimension. An equally important but often ignored dimension is education’s contribution to enhancing capability of the state through robust governance and effective service delivery. This can only be delivered through a cadre of well-educated and skilled civil service. But decades of underinvestment in higher education have caused what some leading scholars have described as state capability traps exemplified by pervasive implementation failure by the an incompetent state bureaucracy.
A 2011 audit of revealed that, nearly fifty years after independence, public servants with post-secondary education comprise a mere 10 % of Kenya’s public servants. Similarly, in 1998, less than 3% of the national public administration staff of Mozambique had post-secondary education in 2001.
In Zambia, country with a population of about 13 million people the current doctor ratio is 1 to 15,000, far lower than WHO recommended ration of 1 to 5000. This is partly explained by the fact that Zambia has a single public medical school, University of Zambia that graduates about 50 physicians annually. Consequently, deaths from preventable diseases are rising while life expectancy is falling. In Ghana, according a UNDP report published in 1994, quality, quantity and supply of critical, high-level skills are cause for concern.
According to the Commission for Africa report published in 2005, weak human capacity is a critical problem in most African countries, affecting all tiers of government and is likely to get worse, given the low levels of investment in higher education. Africa’s capacity to deliver on its development goals and compete in a globalized knowledge is therefore at risk.
Besides low investment in higher education, low enrollment and low academic output, both undergraduate and graduate programs in Africa’s universities are out of sync with the urgent societal needs. The yawning supply – demand gap for skills exacerbates the problem of graduate unemployment and further undermines public confidence in the “value” of university education.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa 2005 report on Youth, Education, Skills and Employment observed that Africa’s youth face many challenges in gaining an education that equips them with the skills and knowledge needed by the labor market, leading to high rates of unemployment among university graduates.
The diminishing return on investment in basic education is now widely recognized. With this recognition comes the imperative to direct attention to the hitherto neglected higher education. A critical motivation for the need to revitalize Africa’s higher education is the growing dominance of the so-called knowledge worker for a Knowledge Economy.
To educate the next generation for a globalized knowledge economy we must depart from modes of teaching and learning that rely solely on didactic approaches, which only demand regurgitation from students.
To educate the next generation for a globalized knowledge economy demands that we embrace new approaches that are consistent with contemporary views of epistemology and learning theory, which treat knowledge as co-constructed by the student and the professor. Such approaches will demand of students, analytical reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving skills as well as reflective practice, innovation and entrepreneurship.
It is the caliber of Africa’s human resource, not its oil or diamonds or land or dreamy visions or ingratiation with China, that will catalyze an endogenous, sustainable socio-economic and technological transformation.