Enrolment in higher education in Africa remains low despite a massive growth in universities in the past decade, undermining the continent’s ability to participate competitively in international trade, research and innovation.
On average, just about five per cent of eligible students are enrolled in Africa’s universities, compared with 70 per cent in developed countries.
East Africa, for example, has about 300 universities and colleges offering degree courses and enrolling about one million students, against a population of about 120 million people. Only one out of every six candidates who completes high school education goes to university.
Even for those enrolled, few pursue science and technology-based courses because the universities lack the resources and capacity to offer them. Low enrolment in science and technology diminishes a country’s or region’s capacity to compete in research and innovation.
Unesco’s 2015 Science Report, for example, shows that sub-Saharan African contributed just 0.5 per cent to global research and innovation, coming last after Eastern Europe’s 1.4 per cent.
These were some of the issues that dominated the international conference on higher education that took place in Cape Town, South Africa from May 3-5.
It was organised by the British Council under the banner, Going Global, and was attended by more than 800 delegates, among them, education ministers, vice chancellors, scholars and researchers.
Of particular concern was the continued low enrolment of girls despite the aggressive campaigns at national and regional levels that had seen more girls complete primary and high school. On average, female students comprised 30 per cent of university enrolment across the continent.
But the African universities narrative presents a paradox. Although at the international level the enrolment is insignificant, at the country level, the universities are bursting at the seams with inordinately large student numbers against a shortage of lecturers and facilities.
Even in developed economies like South Africa, universities have more than 1,000 students in some classes, which leaves no room for close student-lecturer contact.
Although the expansion of universities creates opportunities for more students to pursue higher education, it is those from rich backgrounds, whose parents are able to pay fees either in public or private institutions, who benefit the most.
Such students also make choices about the courses they wanted to pursue, while children from poor backgrounds have to contend with public-funded universities, where they are selected to take any course available. Also, most of the courses are general degrees with limited career opportunities.