As the race to the higher education mountain top hots up, African universities need a big funds boost

Samuel, an undergraduate student at a leading public university in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, studies part-time on weekday evenings. 

His office is only 5km away, and the drive should ordinarily take 20 minutes at most. However, with Nairobi’s chock-a-block traffic, he’s almost always late to class.

Worse, he finds the lecture hall that accommodates hundreds of students crammed to capacity. This means he has to squeeze between other students or sometimes stand through the lecture.

The professor is fairly understanding of such students, but in a class of over 200 students, getting personalised attention from a lecturer is almost impossible.

“It can get overwhelming, but what do I do? I only have a year to go so I’ll just persevere till I get my [graduation] papers,” Samuel says, at the point of exasperation. 

His case is, unfortunately, not unique in Africa. Many institutions of higher learning are struggling to cope with increased enrolment rates over the years without a corresponding increase in the number of teaching staff.

A study by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (Chet) on eight select premier public universities in Africa found that total student enrolments had doubled between 2001 and 2011. 

It also found that while student enrolment rates in the eight universities had grown on average by 7% annually, permanent academic staff had grown by only 4% in the same period, unfavourably skewing the teaching staff-student ratio.

Kenya’s Nairobi University and the University of Ghana were found to have particularly unfavourable student to staff ratios. Nairobi’s ratio of full-time students to full-time academics rose from an acceptable 12:1 in 2001 to a high 36:1 in 2011. Ghana’s ratio rose from 12:1 to 29:1 in the same period.

Proliferation versus investment

Due to demand for higher education, higher learning institutions has increased tremendously in many African countries over the last decade. Governments have made an effort to increase the number of universities and institutions offering degree programmes in a bid to respond to this demand.

However, even as the tertiary education sector is rapidly expanding in sub-Saharan Africa, it is rarely accompanied by matching funding.

It is estimated that student enrolment in Africa rose from 2.7 million in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006, an approximate 16% annual increase in that period.

The World Bank in a 2010 report on investment in higher education showed that there weren’t enough resources in institutions to adequately support the growing numbers. The report noted that this 16% increase in enrolment was only accompanied by a 6% increase in public investment in education over the same period.

With student enrolment growing a lot faster than most governments can comfortably finance, this has led to a steady decline in the quality of education.

Disproportionate funding

In light of these gaps in funding, African governments need to allocate larger portions of their annual budgets to education than before. 

Some, like the South African government, have continued to grow their spend on education. In fact, the lion’s share of the annual budget (20%) goes to education — higher than any other sector — with at least a fifth of this amount going towards higher education. 

Yet, despite this, funding for higher education as a percentage of GDP has been decreasing steadily. Higher Education South Africa (Hesa) in 2014 indicated that funding for higher education as a percentage of GDP fell from 0.76% in the year 2000 to 0.69% in 2009. 

In Kenya, 21% of the budget currently goes towards education. However, state funding for public higher education fell from an average 0.94% of GDP between 1996 and 2000 to 0.74% between 2001 and 2005.

But, the Kenyan and South African cases differ slightly. While budgetary support for South African universities may be increasing in real terms, it is falling in per capita terms because student enrolment is growing at a faster rate than public funding increases. In the Kenyan case, budgetary support to the institutions remains largely unchanged, despite the massive increase in enrolment rates. 

Andreas Bloom, a lead education economist for African Education at the World Bank, believes more needs to be done to invest in better quality higher education if Africa is to achieve its development goals.

“The investment into higher education in Africa needs to increase. It is too low to provide quality education for those who currently attend, and it is too low to allow those who are currently excluded but qualified to pursue studies at the higher education level.”


Another worrying trend is the focus on teaching at the undergraduate and postgraduate level at the expense of research. Research is key to improving the competitiveness of Africa’s universities and contributes to the regional and global knowledge society.

However, most undergraduate and graduate programmes in the region focus on professional capping (academic) degrees, rather than degrees that offer training in research. 

Dr Ebrima Sall, executive director at the Dakar-based think tank Codestria (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) says part of the problem is that there are few research universities on the continent.

“Out of the 1 000 or so universities we now have on the continent, only a very small number can really be called research universities: the leading South African universities, Cheikh Anta Diop and Gaston Berger in Senegal, Legon in Ghana, Makerere in Uganda, Mohamed V Agdal and Mohamed V Souissi in Morocco, the National University of Rwanda, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, the leading Nigerian Universities (Ibadan, Lagos, Obafemi Awolowo in Ife) and a few others.”

Additionally, academic staff members who would be expected to be actively involved in research (senior level staff and those with doctorates) are generally not as productive as they should be.

According to the Chet study, low research outputs from public universities in Africa could be as a result of a lack of incentives such as research funding. Low research productivity could also be due to large teaching and administrative workloads placed on high-level academic staff.

“The research budgets of the universities are also, with the exception of South African universities and a few others, very low. Research in most of the universities has therefore always been externally funded and more often than not, may not have been relevant to the development needs of African societies,” Dr Sall says, adding that for research to be effective, research agendas need to be set locally.

“Examples such as the role of the University of Rwanda in the production of coffee in Rwanda are good indications of the strong potential that exists.”

Humanities v social sciences

Most university students are in the humanities and social sciences, leading to higher unemployment rates in graduates and the importation of skilled labour into well-paying but unfilled technical and engineering occupations.

This is especially problematic with the current boom in the extractive industries, where current studies show that 35.6% of the workforce is imported.

“The extractive industries require very high level technician and engineering quality. Perhaps, even more importantly, the African economies miss an opportunity to build their own supplier and ICT companies. What are the chances the next Google will be started in Africa, when there are so few entrepreneurial software engineers in Africa?” asks  Bloom.

To become competitive on the world stage, Africa must scale up its investment in relevant higher education programmes that match current development needs. 

The institutions in turn can focus less on student enrolments as a source of operating revenue. They should also target high-level qualified academics to re-ignite a research culture in their universities.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Safety at schools: ‘Keep your distance and your pen’

The department of basic education has developed guidelines to assist schools with minimising the spread of the coronavirus

‘Soon he’ll be seen as threatening, not cute’: What it’s...

There is no separating George Floyd’s killing from the struggles black people have faced ever since the first slave ships landed on these shores

How schools could work during Covid

Ahead of their opening, the basic education department has given schools three models to consider to ensure physical distancing

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday