Africa’s higher education has suffered deep stagnation over several decades. For many decades, African governments and development partners have placed more emphasis on primary and secondary 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. The reason for the historically low emphasis on higher education is partly because earlier studies by economists, including Milton Friedman, suggested that there was no evidence that higher education yielded social benefits over and above 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 tertiary education budgets while six currents explicitly planned to cut funding. International donor agencies have abetted African governments’ neglect of higher education. For instance, international aid in support of higher education is on average US$ 600 million annually, or one quarter of all international aid to the education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Persistent underinvestment in higher education in Africa is evidenced by the low enrollment rates. Gross enrollment in Africa’s higher education was just 5 %, compared to 11 % in India, 20 % in China and 70% in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, according to a UNESCO report published in 2009. The 5 % average belies large differences among countries. For instance, in 2005, gross enrollment ration in higher education was 1 % in Tanzania, 4% in Kenya, 8 % in Cote d’Ivoire, 10 % in Nigeria 15 % for South Africa and 31 % in Tunisia.
Similarly, low public investment and spending in higher education has precipitated further declines in quality and relevance of education curricular the quality of graduate and the output of scientific products. Africa’s published research papers only amount to 0.7 % of the global total . This means that Africa’s scholars are not doing enough to generate local knowledge that could provide potential homegrown solutions to Africa’s urgent social, 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 because poorly educated personnel largely dominate state bureaucracy. A 2011 audit of revealed that, nearly fifty years after independence, public servants who have attained higher education comprise only 10 % of Kenya’s public servants. Similarly, in 1998, less than 3% of the national public administration staff of Mozambique had higher education in 2001.
In Zambia, country with a population of about 13 million people the current doctor ratio is 15,000, far lower than WHO recommended ration of 5000. This is partly explained by the fact that Zambia has a single medical school, University of Zambia that graduates about 50 physicians each year. Consequently, deaths from preventable diseases are rising and life expectancy is falling. Similarly in Ghana, according a UNDP report published in 1994, quality, quantity and supply of critical, high level skills gives cause for concern. Weak capacity is a major problem in most African countries, affecting all tiers of government and is likely to get worse (Commission for Africa 2005: 137-8). Africa’s capacity to deliver on its development goals is therefore at risk.
Besides low investment in higher education, low enrollment and low academic output, university programs in Africa’s universities are out of sync with the needs of their countries. The veritable supply – demand gap exacerbates the problem of graduate unemployment but further undermines the efficiency of public investment in tertiary education . The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA, 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 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 Economy.
Without more and better higher education, developing Africa will find it increasingly difficult to benefit from the global knowledge based economy. A key component of a knowledge economy is the premium value of high intellectual capability of citizens as opposed to physical inputs or natural resources.