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Past Editorial : February 2008

February 2008

African Higher Education: Capturing the Recent Past, Projecting the Future

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.


Higher education in Africa has seen considerable developments in the last decade. These developments are attributed to policy shifts favorable to higher education in the region, massive demand and major growth in providers, unprecedented progress in information and communication technologies (ICT), large numbers of unemployed and unemployable graduates, uncertainty due to international regimes such as GATS, diminishing faculty numbers, and massive brain drain. This article attempts to capture these major developments in the past decade and also sketches challenges for the future.


Policy Predicament: Emancipation and Revitalization 

African higher education survived under the shadow of an unfavorable international regime for several decades following the infamous rate of return study sanctioned by the World Bank in mid—1980s which claimed that higher education was a luxury the continent can ill afford. The position of the Bank has had an enduring impact—both direct and indirect. First, the Bank dropped loan requests for higher education development on the continent. Second, other international development partners and major philanthropic organizations, even some considered to be fiercely independent, followed the same policy track, dropping higher education from their development list. Third, African governments themselves neglected universities largely due to external influence.

With the publications of Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise (World Bank, 2000) and Constructing Knowledge Societies (World Bank, 2002), which affirmed the role of higher education in the globalized world, the position of the Bank has shifted in favor of higher education. This, in effect, has emancipated the system in the region, and created the opportunity for the Bank, other development partners, and respective governments to revitalize and expand the higher education system on the continent. One could probably mark this major policy shift as the most important development across the African higher education landscape in the last decade.

Private Expansion: Public Influence

In many countries, upgraded and brand new institutions have emerged in a short span of time. The growth of private institutions has been especially phenomenal. For example, in Ethiopia, where virtually no private institution existed a decade ago, over 60 operate now. There are 18 in Kenya, 20 in Tanzania, and 32 in Nigeria. One of the most, if not the most, remarkable developments in the continent’s higher education system is the mushrooming of private colleges. While this growth has been dramatic, the demand for access is still far from fulfilled, with a total of 5% enrollment in the region.

As the liberalized global economic policies encouraged the growth of private institutions on the continent, their expansion had direct and indirect impact on the funding of public higher institutions. The trend, among others, provided the public institutions the impetus to get increasingly bolder in practicing several cost—sharing initiatives which some dub as the privatization of public institutions. The taboo of revenue generation has been tolerated and controversies surrounding cost—sharing have been muted. The impact of these developments is, however, being re—evaluated as some signs of equity, quality and access issues are being raised.

Numerous common threads are shared among the recently established non—sectarian private institutions in the region—and around the world, for that matter. They are generally smaller in size, limited to programs of popular demand, market—orientated, and fee— and tuition—dependent. They are often reliant on staff in major public institutions, and largely staffed by part—timers. Virtually none of them pursue research and rarely offer postgraduate programs.

Private higher education institutions, especially those dependent on tuition and fees, are generally precarious and resource challenged. However, such institutions funded and run by religious groups are growing in number, importance and strength.


Expanding Access: Dealing with Quality 

As access to higher education is expanding in the region rapidly, quality has emerged as a growing concern to stakeholders?students, parents and guardians, employers, and governments. The concern is especially acute in relation to private institutions, whose credibility on the continent is yet to be fully established amidst mixed feelings of the public and governments on their fast growth, delivery, and accountability.

To address this emerging concern, many countries have established quality assurance and accreditation offices in the last several years. These offices have already made some progress in registering, accrediting as well as revoking licenses of providers. However, the status and operational capability of these institutions in the region leave a lot to be desired.

As the effort to regulate these institutions is going on, private providers in some countries are increasingly engaged in proactively policing themselves, protecting their interests, shaping pertinent dialog, and collectively raising their grievances. One such example is the Association of Private Institutions in Ethiopia established in 2005.


Public Funding: A Diminishing Trend?

Higher education in Africa is still mainly a public affair, though this is quickly changing. In the past decade, with the liberalization of the economy and expansion of private providers, public institutions have also moved to institutionalize various kinds of cost—sharing initiatives. While changes around elimination of benefits and imposition of fees had been largely met with fierce resistance in the past, that reaction has greatly subsided. Paying for one’s higher education appears to have been accepted, with countries introducing major cost—sharing schemes such as loan options. Even in some countries, such as Kenya, where the loan scheme had failed in the past, they are now putting in place an effective system.

Funding will remain the undisputed challenger to the expansion and reinvigoration of the higher education system in Africa. Low economic growth rates, weak investment outlooks, unsustainable unemployment rates, grinding poverty and rampant disease, such as HIV—AIDS, will continue to constrain Africa’s ability to generate meaningful revenues in the context of a “liberated” education sub—system, which until recently was dubbed “a luxury.”


Academic Freedom and Autonomy: Winds of Change?

Africa has largely been known as a bastion of military and authoritarian dictatorships which repress its population—and its intellectuals. As the wind of democratization is blowing across the region, chipping away one dictator after another, the human rights and intellectual space of nations are budding—albeit very slowly.

As opposition movements and civic organizations on the continent are flourishing, the role of universities as a vanguard of social movements has considerably diminished. Indeed, many of the recent leaders and opposition politicians had been university professors, intellectuals and other high—level professionals who have fought tyranny themselves and tend to be more tolerant of academic freedom and autonomy of universities.


Intellectual Drain: Potential for Circulation

One of the chronic challenges of higher education development in Africa—and the region’s development as a whole—remains the exodus of highly skilled personnel, a phenomenon commonly known as brain drain. The knowledge economy and as a consequence the global hunt for talent continue to exacerbate this persistent regional predicament. It is now common knowledge that more doctors, professors, and lawyers from Africa work and live in the “North,” at massive cost to the region.

Several efforts are underway to stem the flight of highly educated Africans, though none of them has yet been successful. On the other hand, there is now a growing tendency and policy shift to tap migrant talent from their base in host countries, and the term brain circulation is now being coined for such initiatives.

While the massive exodus continues to devour the intellectual soul of African nations, the unprecedented innovations in ICTs have made it possible for migrant intellectuals to participate in the academic and scholarly initiatives of their home countries. Other than the highly publicized implications of remittances and its growing importance in the region—as a major source of foreign currency and foreign investment—the potential of the diaspora intellectual input—in terms of teaching, joint research and publishing, and consultancy—is garnering considerable attention.


Building Intellectual Discourse: Expanding Public Policy Space

Several major international, regional, and national initiatives have emerged to nurture the research and public policy dialog, as well as enhance information provision on higher education in Africa in the last several years. One of these international initiatives is our network, INHEA. (Please also review the multiple African higher education initiatives referenced by this site.)

Buoyed by a positive policy environment, major foundations have been actively engaged in promoting higher education in Africa, funding research and research networks, publishing, fostering public policy dialog, and building infrastructure. The most visible example in this vein is the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a conglomerate of seven US—based foundations, working with eight countries in the region.

Major international development partners that in the past were simply absent from, or even critical of, higher education development in Africa, are moving forward to help build higher education institutions on the continent. Whereas the alliance of these institutions to invigorate higher education institutions is commendable, their commitment is yet to be followed by commensurate financial resources.


ICT: Successes and Glitches

The unprecedented development in ICTs has opened up great many opportunities in all walks of life. Whereas Africa remains the least wired (and wireless) region in the world, the transformation brought about by ICTs has considerably contributed to teaching, research, and publishing in the region’s institutions.

Access to email, Internet and e—journals has considerably alleviated the chronic problem of isolation the African intelligentsia has persistently faced. Communication among fellow scholars and researchers has been dramatically boosted, enabling effective communication across the region—and the world.

While these developments have made considerable impacts, their delivery, quality, and reliability in the region leave a lot to be desired. Low bandwidth, high cost of service, erratic and unreliable power supply, poor technical support, short life span of software and hardware, along with constant demands for their upgrade, will continue to pose challenges to ICT usage and deployment in the region’s higher education institutions.



The liberation from the unfavorable policies long sanctioned by external agencies, the synergy generated by the new paradigms of the knowledge economy, the steady, though fledgling, liberalizing regional economy, and the unprecedented developments in ICTs have had considerable impact on higher education development in Africa over the past decade.

As these accomplishments are noted, however, numerous outstanding challenges—sometimes paradoxical in nature—remain. These include low enrollment rates (accompanied by inequity) and massive demand, limited funding capability, poor quality teaching and low research output, “unfit” graduates, massive brain drain, uncertainties that emanate from international regimes such as GATS, diminishing faculty (due to age and mortality), and massive brain drain.

As higher education takes a central position in the knowledge economy, establishing dynamic and vibrant knowledge institutions has become crucial. Africa thus must make a serious effort to build strong higher education systems if it is to emerge as a meaningful player in the knowledge economy.






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