Private colleges can benefit Africa’s students

Private universities are mushrooming across Africa, largely in response to the continent’s soaring demand for higher education.

Research shows that the number of tertiary students in Africa almost trebled between 1999 and 2012, from about 3.5-million students to more than 9.5-million.

Private institutions’ model differs between countries. For instance, many of Nigeria’s roughly 60 private universities are less than a decade old and are owned by churches, businesses or politicians.

In Ghana, these institutions are called university colleges – privately established but managed and accredited by older public universities. Most of Liberia’s private universities were established by Christian missionary groups.

No matter their structure and location, these private institutions are a valuable addition to Africa’s higher education landscape – and, ultimately, the continent’s economies.

For one thing, they broaden access to higher education. In many countries, governments have focused their education funding on the primary and secondary sectors.

This matches most donors’ priorities and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Public institutions are scrambling for money.

They are crammed to capacity and cannot cater for the growing number of young Africans who want a university degree.

Though private universities are an important part of the sector, far more must be done to make them powerhouses of knowledge, research and graduate output.

About 90% of Africa’s jobs are in the informal economy, associated with low productivity, low quality and low pay. At the same time, the continent is urbanising rapidly

and a natural resources boom has handed some countries a golden growth opportunity.

Africa badly needs the kind of skilled people a good university can produce, such as engineers, scientists and computer technicians.

Private universities are uniquely poised to address the continent’s economic and development needs.

They don’t rely on government funding and are not subject to government pressure.

They are often smaller than their public counterparts and are less bureaucratic by their very nature, so decisions can be made quickly.

Because their founders often come from the private sector, they ought to have better links to various industries and a better understanding of what kind of employees those industries need.

The first constraint is that there is a shortage of doctoral graduates on the continent. In Nigeria and Kenya, most university lecturers don’t have doctorates.

The only way private institutions can get around the shortage is to employ senior academics from public universities on a contract basis.

These academics won’t quit their full-time jobs or give up the pensions they’ve been working towards for years. They consider the public sector more stable – but welcome extra income.

The quality of teaching naturally suffers when academics are trying to do their full-time job as well as handle a part-time commitment.

Without senior academics qualified to supervise postgraduates,

private institutions struggle to develop and produce their own research. There is also little capacity for revamping existing curriculums or developing new course material.

This means private institutions tend to recycle public universities’ old curriculums, which means

they are not really offering their students anything new or ground-breaking, and certainly nothing to justify considerably higher fees.

Although governments do not fund private universities, they do have an important role to play in building, supporting and monitoring the sector.

They need to regulate private institutions so that these offer good-quality education and qualifications.

There is much to learn from Ghana’s model of university colleges. These encourage a good working relationship between private and public institutions.

This is far more constructive than the rivalry that exists between the two sectors elsewhere on the continent.

Governments have the authority to bring public and private institutions to the same table and help them to establish productive partnerships.

These can ultimately only benefit the entire higher education system – and Africa’s university students. –

Akanimo Odon is a visiting fellow at Lancaster University. He is affiliated to the Xn Foundation

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