African Higher Education challenges: Economics and Research



Much of Africa is at the early stage of massification of higher education. Sub-Saharan Africa, with a few exceptions, enrolls under 10 percent of a rapidly growing age cohort. This means that in the coming decades Africa will expand enrollments rapidly. Massification is an “iron law” of 21st-century higher education everywhere, and it cannot be stopped. Countries must cater to increased demand for access. At the same time, the global knowledge economy demands at least some universities in each country that have research capacity and the ability to work with the top universities worldwide.

Thus, Africa faces significant challenges at the top and at the bottom of the academic system. Key to finding solutions is effective funding mechanisms to support higher education in a rapidly changing environment. Understanding both possibilities and realities are necessary first steps in finding constructive solutions. Looking carefully and critically at the experience of a range of African examples is probably more useful than taking lessons from the international literature or from other parts of the world.

Financing African Higher Education

Without a stable funding base, neither access nor excellence can be achieved. One thing is clear—the common African patterns of full state funding to a small number of universities no longer works—if in fact it ever did. Free tuition and free or highly subsidized accommodation are simply unsustainable. Alternative funding mechanisms must be found.

Clearly, charging tuition is a necessity for all of African higher education. It would be best if loan and grant programs can be established so that students who need financial assistance can obtain it. African universities can also be more active in obtaining funds from local institutions and searching for philanthropic support—although the chances are modest at least in the short run.

As elsewhere, private higher education is expanding in Africa. In fact, private higher education is the fastest-growing segment of higher education worldwide. The private sector may be necessary, but it presents serious problems in many countries—low standards, lack of transparency, and a financial strategy that places institutional profits above quality or standards. Of course, not all private institutions exhibit these characteristics but many do. Harnessing the private sector for the public interest is a key necessity.

Research on Higher Education

If one looks around the world, the region perhaps least served by relevant research and analysis of higher education is sub-Saharan Africa. Much more research is needed. The small group of dedicated African higher education researchers needs to be enlarged, and the necessary accompaniments of a research infrastructure—a good journal, appropriate websites, research centers, and institutes—need to be established. Universities need their own institutional research capacity, particularly the ability to generate data on aspects of university management, student issues, and other key topics to guide planning and management. Governments need data and analysis to help them shape effective higher education policies.

Knowledge, based on good research, is necessary if policies are to be thoughtfully planned and implemented. Africa’s higher education challenges can only be addressed with the benefit of locally-focused research and analysis—only then can sound, viable strategy be devised.