Africa has too few universities for its fast growing population

Chasing the university dream
Chasing the university dream
Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar
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Universities and higher education institutions were always part and parcel of Africa’s modern and past history. The Univerisity of Al Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which opened in 859 AD, is considered the oldest existing and continually operating university in the world. Al-Azhar University in Egypt, part of the larger complex of institutions associated with Al-Azhar mosque and which currently enrolls two million students, is dubbed the world’s most prestigious Islamic university.

But that important legacy is being tested as universities across Africa face a myriad of challenges related to the progress and management of their education systems.

Besides the systemic, qualitative challenges, there are also shortcomings when it comes to the quantity. A close examination by Quartz Africa of the top 10 most populous countries in Africa shows just over 740 universities serving some 660 million of Africa’s 1 billion people. But compare that figure with countries like the United States, which has some 5,300 universities and colleges serving a population of over 323 million people.

In the continent’s five most-populous nations, the population per capita served by a given university went as high as 1.5 million in Egypt. South Africa had the lowest number with over 390,000 people. With dropping child mortality rates and high fertility rates, Africa’s population is rapidly expanding, with the continent expected to have an estimated 2.8 billion people by 2060.

The list was compiled from various government and educational sources, and accounts for stand-alone, fully-fledged universities and not their constituent colleges or different campuses. It also doesn’t account for non-university education systems like technical schools, research, and distance learning centers, besides the many smaller colleges that offer professional or vocational courses.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has some 40 federal universities, 44 state universities and 68 private universities. In Kenya, the number of private chartered universities, which are also able to receive some funding from government, rose to 17 in contrast to 22 public universities. Ethiopia has made huge strides towards providing higher education: in 2000, the country only had two universities but now has 36 public universities and 98 private institutions, according to the ministry of education. Private universities accounted for more than the public ones in Uganda, Sudan, Egypt, and Tanzania.

Universities in South Africa are the best performers on the continent. Even though the country had 136 universities (pdf) catering for it 54 million population, it almost always scooped the best rankings in the continent. In the 2016 Times Higher Education ranking, South Africa had six out of the 15 best universities in Africa because of its universities’ highly-cited research, strong international outlook and the ability to attract endowment funds from industries.

But quality in African universities doesn’t always translate to being competitive on a global level. With increasing matriculation levels across the continent, the issue of standards almost always comes up, with more universities lacking basic facilities or a well-rounded ecosystem for education. For instance, the best university in Africa in 2016 is the University of Cape Town followed by Witwatersrand. Yet UCT is ranked 148th globally in the Times ranking, while Wits is ranked 182 globally.

To remedy some of these quantitative and qualitative challenges, universities in Africa need to focus on producing knowledge and focusing on developing cutting edge research. As Harvard’s Calestous Juma wrote in Quartz Africa, there’s need for the creation of “innovation universities,” who are dedicated to solving local problems and improving lives.

Of the nearly 128 million school-aged children in the continent, 17 million will never attend school, according to data from the Brookings Institution. Another 37 million in school also face learning deficits that they aren’t much better than those who never attend school.

The result is just 6% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa will enroll for some form of tertiary education, compared to a child in an OECD country who has an 80% chance.