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Expansion, consolidation, and un(der)employment

Massive growth in university enrolments in Africa is having a negative impact on the quality of teaching, learning and research. Broad action is needed across the continent to address the challenges, says Damtew Teferra.

African higher education has recorded an impressive growth in the last decade. An estimated 14 million students study in higher learning institutions in the region with Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia enrolling the most students. Over 500 public and 1,500 private universities operate in the region. Yet, still the enrolment rate, at around 6 per cent, stands as the lowest in the world.

If expansion of access could be triumphantly described as African higher education success, the grim realities of its quality diminish this declaration. As enrolments in the system have grown exponentially, quality of teaching, learning, and research has suffered precipitously. Massive expansion has meant that class sizes ballooned, academics became overloaded, resources declined, activities were trimmed, and facilities deteriorated—creating a perfect storm for a quality crisis.

The implications of massive growth are probably nowhere clearer than on the research landscape. Africa’s share of global research is depressingly low, hovering at just above 1 per cent. Despite the impressive growth of the system, the region has little to show for its knowledge productivity— an agonising reality in the knowledge era. Poor quality and knowledge productivity continue to depict the system—necessitating consolidating excellence, while pursuing expansion. Ameliorating the situation requires sustained commitment and commitment of meaningful resources to research and development.

As expansion is rapid and consolidation staggers, a once reluctantly tolerated predicament of unemployment for university graduates has surfaced with a vengeance. The continent is now awash with unemployed and underemployed graduates, in some cases prompting organised action. As Africa still counts its enrolment rates in single digits—and needs to catch up with the rest of the world—the massive unemployment of graduates has emerged as a serious national, regional, and international conundrum, following the Arab Spring allegedly sparked by unemployed graduates.

Higher education expansion is part of national development plans, though their implementation is increasingly tempered by narrow political whims. Thus, opening new public institutions is more influenced by political imperatives than relevance and appropriateness. Opening a university has become part of a political manifesto across the region, pursued both by incumbents as well as oppositions in the hope of scoring electoral votes. Such crass politics tend to undermine the possible differentiation of the system—putting more pressure on the delicate relationship between expansion and consolidation, quantity, and excellence. Egalitarian views of all a country’s public institutions as equals are not only flawed, but also costly.

The triple conundrum of African higher education is as complex as it is forbidding, with no immediate relief in sight. Thus, meaningful system differentiation, expanding delivery modes, diversified financing, vigorous quality regimes, sound institutional autonomy and “robust” curricula help address the confounding predicaments.

Sustained macroeconomic growth, attractive investment opportunities, declining internecine conflicts, more accountable and transparent governments and institutions—attributed to ever-growing African self-confidence and its global image—and, most importantly, the favourable higher education perceptions increase optimism in the outlook for higher education development in the continent.

Damtew Teferra is professor and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. Email: teferra@ukzn.ac.za.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of International Higher Education, a quarterly publication produced by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education in the US. It is republished with the author’s approval.