African universities offer ray of light

Graduates from flagship universities in sub-Saharan Africa total about 2.5-million.

Graduates from flagship universities in sub-Saharan Africa total about 2.5-million.

Africa has the lowest university enrolment rates in the world, relative to population. In the past two decades, though, almost all the continent’s higher education systems have recorded massive growth.

The spike in enrolments started in the late 1990s. It was driven partly by the liberalisation of the global economy.
People also started becoming more aware of the critical role that higher education plays in development. Other contributing factors included enabling institutional and national policies, improved access and funding. There were also international imperatives such as favourable global higher education policies.

The continent’s higher education system is superficially covered in the popular media. Much of what has been written about Africa’s universities – and particularly its flagship institutions – focuses only on their shortcomings and the challenges they face.

I have spent the past two years working with a team of researchers to collect data with a view to analysing higher education institutions in Africa. We used 11 leading universities as case studies. The study analysed and documented the institutions’ contributions in teaching, learning, graduate output and research productivity. It revealed that flagship universities have made a huge input with regard to capacity building and skills development in the decades following African countries’ independence.

The findings suggest they have plenty more to offer. This includes millions of graduates who will add to the continent’s future growth and development.

Flagship universities
Africa’s flagship universities are those established in the lead-up to and just after independence during the 1960s. Their age, size and reputation mean they’re considered their respective countries’ leading institutions.

Our research – which we expect to publish in a book with the working title Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, Impact and Trajectory – found that these universities still play a critical role in national capacity building and innovation efforts today.

Given their age, capacity and reputation, flagship universities tend to be the most internationalised and advanced when it comes to institutional co-operation. This is important in a higher education sector that’s continually globalising. Their reputation extends to the calibre of their alumni, among whom are Nobel laureates, heads of state, ministers, acclaimed authors, judges, economists and actors.

The flagship universities in this study are in Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Tracking a growth pattern
Four patterns of growth are revealed by studying these universities’ available enrolment data from 2000 to 2015. These are:

  • Exponential expansion;
  • Major expansion;
  • Sizeable expansion; and
  • Stabilisation.

The universities of Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana and Nairobi recorded three- to fourfold growth in 15 years. This can be considered exponential expansion. The universities of Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal), Mauritius and Zambia saw twofold expansion or more.

Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Botswana displayed sizeable expansion of more than 50%. The universities of Ibadan in Nigeria and Cairo in Egypt, meanwhile, showed signs of stabilisation with fluctuating growth in both the positive and negative territories.

There are several factors that make it difficult to categorise growth and to develop a watertight pattern. For instance, some constituent members of flagship universities have broken up into independent, fully fledged new institutions. This is a common phenomenon in Africa.

University mergers are the flip-side of this trend. The University of Rwanda, which was not part of the study, is one flagship university that has brought several institutions together under one roof.

Student and labour strikes, which are fairly common at African universities, are also a problem. Any disruptions to the academic year make it difficult to accurately document enrolment trends or other variables.

The way that enrolment is counted compounds the challenge. African universities’ data collection tends to be poorly developed and managed, even in this electronic age. Data must be cobbled together from different sources. This has obvious implications for tracking a growth pattern.

Despite these stumbling blocks, it was possible to identify some remarkable milestones.

Graduates: The good news
The numbers extrapolated from this study show that flagship universities have contributed hugely to the training and development of skilled graduates since their inception.

Several universities in the study, among them Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana and Nairobi, have recorded at least 100 000 graduates each since they opened – and this is a conservative estimate. In some cases, such as at Makerere, only figures for the past 12 years are available.

Cairo University alone has registered more than 500 000 graduates in just the past 20 years. If you remove it from consideration, 10 flagship universities in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for producing just under a million graduates since they opened.

On the basis of raw data from the study, it is projected that the total number of graduates from flagship universities in sub-Saharan Africa now stands between 2.5-million and three million.

Flagships must be nurtured
Africa’s higher education sector is expanding rapidly. New public and private institutions crop up all the time and are flourishing.

Even amid these changes, flagship universities remain their countries’ academic flag bearers. They are critical institutions. They must be strategically positioned to build national capacity and to advance African universities’ global competitiveness.

Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

This article is based on one that originally appeared in University World News and was published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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