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Past Editorial : December 2015

December 2015

1443651948496African Flagship Universities: Enrollment Typology and Graduate Projections

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

In a recently published article ‘African Flagship Universities: Their Neglected Contributions’ (in Higher Education)—an outcome of a two-year study of a dozen Flagship Universities in Africa—I attempted to formulate an enrollment typology and also ventured in to estimating the number of graduates these institutions have produced since their founding. This editorial attempts to capture these aspects of the study expected to be published in a book entitled Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, Impact and Trajectory (working title).


The Numbers

Africa has the lowest higher education enrolment rates in the world. But in the last decade, virtually all African higher education systems have recorded massive growth. For instance in Uganda, where Makerere University dominated the national higher education scene up until 1988, half a dozen public universities have been opened, with the result that the enrolment figures grew from under 10,000 in the 1990s to over 100,000 in 2008 to nearly 200,000 currently.

In Ethiopia, the growth of the higher education sector may be described as simply phenomenal. In this second most populous African country, the number of public universities mushroomed from two in early 1990s to thirty five currently. Even in Malawi, a country with the lowest enrolment rate in Africa, the number has more than doubled in just over half a decade to reach in excess of 10,000.

In terms of sheer numbers, Nigeria, with about 1.7 million students, has comparable enrollment figures as Egypt, which is considered to have the highest number of post-secondary students in Africa, at over 1.8 million. South Africa at one million students and Ethiopia at 600,000, they stand third and fourth in Africa respectively.

The enrollment growth for the universities exhibits somewhat similar take-off time starting in the late 1990s driven by the liberalization of the global economy, the enunciation of the critical role of higher education in the knowledge society as well as some aspects of the democratic processes of the continent. The pattern of growth trajectory of the universities in particular and the higher education sector in the respective countries in particular—both in absolute terms as well as in proportions—has been however the function of multiple factors including institutional and national policies, in terms of access, funding and equity as well as international imperatives.

The term “massification” has been widely used to describe the growth pattern of higher education systems in Africa and globally. But this terminology, as often invoked, does not follow Trow’s typology (1974) which identifies higher education development into three groups—elite, mass and universal—based on enrolment ratios. Thus, to be sure most of Africa still remains an elite club.

The study, as one of its outcome, has attempted to establish the total student enrollment in Africa. Accordingly it projected the current enrollment in Africa in excess of 15 million students, taking into consideration a rather conservative growth rate of 5 per cent for the years 2007-2015 on the assumption that the initial ‘massive’ growth rate of 16 percent, according to the World Bank, has stabilized.


The Trend: Enrollment Taxonomy

The enrollment trends of the flagship institutions—developed on the basis of growth data over (and during the course of) the recent decade since the beginning of the Millennium—illustrate instructive patterns of an enrollment taxonomy on the continent. This taxonomic rendering with loose boundaries exhibits four patterns of growth that could be essentially described as

  1. Exponential expansion
  2. Major expansion
  3. Sizeable expansion and
  4. Stabilization.

With three-to-four fold growth during the stated course of the period, Universities of Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana and Nairobi have recorded exponential growth while Universities of Cheikh Anta Diop, Mauritius and Zambia have shown a major expansion of two and more fold growth. While Universities of Botswana and Makerere have shown sizeable expansion of more than 50 percent, Universities of Ibadan and Cairo have in fact exhibited signs of stabilization with fluctuating growth both in the positive and negative territories.


Taxonomic Rendering: Limitations

In articulating these patterns of growth in the region, it is important to point out a number of factors that may disrupt the trend of this taxonomic rendering. For instance, why is it that some institutions appear to have sharp and sudden fluctuation in enrollment growth, other than when they are forced by their respective authorities to do so? First, the breaking up of constituent members of the flagship universities into independent fully-fledged new institutions has been a common phenomenon in the African higher education landscape. Quite a contrary phenomenon of merger is also known to take place as in the case in Rwanda where its National University of Rwanda has now brought together several institutions, including constituent universities, under one roof. Second, the occasional campus strikes which disrupt academic years often make it difficult to document enrollment trends or other variables accurately. Third, the way enrollment is counted—including and/or omitting graduate and distance education—further compound the challenge.

 Break up and Merger

Typically many new institutions have emerged as independent entities after breaking off from their mother institutions—the flagship universities. As mergers of institutions, which are not that common in Africa, do hugely upset tracking patterns of enrollment growth (or other variables) institutionally, so do break ups of single institutions into multiple independent entities.

 Strikes and disruptions

African universities are often a subject of student and labour strikes that close institutions and disrupt academic calendars. Universities and entire higher education systems are known to close for an extended period of time. This has considerable implications on tracking enrollments rendering the task of documentation somewhat problematic.

 Data collection and presentation

Locating, accessing, organizing and documenting enrollment figures in African institutions are treacherous as the information management system still, in this electronic age, remains poorly developed and managed. The absence of an effective and centralized system entails cobbling up data from different sources based on varied assumptions with implications on tracking a growth pattern.


The Graduates

The study has also attempted to project the number of students who graduated from the respective flagship universities since their founding. Based on the numbers extrapolated from this study and major other sources, it can be concluded that flagship universities in Africa have made tremendous contributions to the training and development of high-level skills in the continent since their inception.

In a striking similarity, a number of flagship universities in this study—Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana, and Nairobi—recorded an estimated 100,000 graduates each since their founding. It should be noted that these figures tend to be rather conservative, and in some cases capture the last dozen years, as in Makerere. It is notable that the University of Cairo as an outlier has registered more than half-a-million graduates in just the last 20 years. When the figure for Egypt, an outlier, is removed from consideration, the figure for the ten universities in Sub-Saharan Africa stands just under one million.

On the basis of raw data from the study, it is projected, for the first time, that the total number of graduates from such universities in Sub-Saharan Africa (as may be designated flagship) stands between 2.5 and 3.0 million. Taking into consideration the massive expansion within the respective flagship institutions and moreover the flourishing of new ones, the graduate figures could simply thus amount to tens of millions.



It is important to recall the recognition of contributions of flagship universities to capacity building and skills development of the continent following Africa’s independence. And yet, much of the conversations and the literature afterwards have been predominantly on their shortcomings and challenges.

It is hoped that such studies and “informed” projections will help build the requisite positive perspectives in the expansion and consolidation of higher education on the continent and moreover help promote the different policies and strategies articulated both at the continental as well as international stages.



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