Making higher education work for Africa: Facts and figures

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Copyright: Abbie Trayler-Smith/H4+ / Panos

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  • Higher education, especially advanced degrees, can help drive development
  • But expanding undergraduate courses are squeezing graduate programmes
  • Africa needs more PhDs and more ‘industry-ready’ graduates

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Sub-Saharan Africa is struggling to produce more and better trained graduates. Irene Friesenhahn explains.

For decades, donors and policymakers have focused on primary and secondary education as the key to development and poverty alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa. But until recently they have been reducing funding for tertiary education. Only since the 1990s has higher education’s importance for socio-economic development come to the fore, becoming part of the political agenda in many African countries. [1,2]

Lidia Brito talks to Kaz Janowski about the role of higher education systems in producing people who she describes as “agents of transformation of society”.

There is now a consensus that Africa needs many more doctorate holders to develop the robust knowledge needed to promote development. The African Union and the British Council, among others, are making the case for higher education’s inclusion in the post-2015 development agenda, given its role as a motor of economic development and prosperity. 
But what does it take to make higher education work for Africa? In particular, what makes producing more PhDs difficult and how should doctoral training change so it better supports the continent’s needs?

Expanding sector

Sub-Saharan Africa’s higher education sector has expanded massively since the 1970s. Student enrolments across all levels grew from roughly 200,000 about 40 years ago to an estimated ten million today. But only a minority of the estimated 1,500 public and private universities across Africa offer graduate programmes. [3]

Indeed, for the past few decades most students wanting graduate degrees would obtain them abroad. Postgraduate enrolment both in master’s and PhD programmes made up 6.9 per cent of the total enrolment in 1997. But it rose to 9.3 per cent by 2014. This is a result of educational reforms that enabled more people to pursue higher education — such as Universal Basic Education (UBE), which aims to reduce drop-outs, Education for All (EFA), which aims to ensure quality education, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which aims to achieve universal primary education.

Increased public investments into higher education signal changing perceptions about higher education systems’ role in Africa’s development priorities. In 2006, African countries’ average public expenditure per university student was US$2,000 per year — more than twice as much as non-African developing countries invest in tertiary education. The continent also receives international support for higher education of about US$600 million annually. [4]

Africa needs to produce future leaders who will promote better governance and management in all sectors, and facilitate innovative solutions to society’s problems. Universities are best placed to provide the trained labour force needed as the drive for knowledge-based economies takes hold on the continent. [5] (Click here to listen to our podcast on Why having a PhD matters in East Africa.)

But efforts to boost advanced degrees have been fraught with difficulties. Although investments into higher education have increased, they are not enough to support the growing numbers of students. For most universities, scarce funding limits their capacity to implement graduate programmes. A shortage of personnel such as faculty members with advanced degrees is another major factor and is compounded by demographics: often, less than 40 per cent of all university staff are under 40 years old. [6] The figure is similar to other regions but is lower than expected for a continent with the youngest population in the world. Budget cuts, hiring freezes, low salaries and low staff-to-student ratios (up to 1:46 in South Africa) discourage young graduates from taking up university careers.

Tight budgets make it difficult for universities to afford an effective learning infrastructure — improvements have been modest in the past few decades. International partnerships can help to compensate for poor resources as well as build research capacity  and increase the number of young African academics with advanced degrees. But many students still work with inadequate internet access, books, equipment, laboratories and libraries. This lowers the quality of education and learning and hinders the production of relevant, high quality research. [3] Of young African scientists surveyed by the Global Young Academy, 70.3 per cent said that poor funding opportunities are one of their most severe career obstacles, while 51.6 per cent mentioned a lack of resources. [7]

This comes not only from decades of poor political commitment to higher education, but also the associated brain drain of academics. Qualified staff have often left faculty positions in African institutions to pursue more attractive and better-paid jobs either in other sectors or abroad. About ten per cent of every cohort of Sub-Saharan Africans with graduate degrees emigrate, [8] leaving a comparatively low number of researchers in most African countries (see Figure 1). 


Number of researchers per million inhabitants

  No data
  0 to 500
  500 to 2,000
  2,000 to 5,000
  5,000 to 8,000
  8,000 to 11,961

 Figure 1: Researchers per million inhabitants, adapted from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics Fact Sheet, Dec 2012, No 21Click here for the data. [9] ENLARGE ICON Click to enlarge map
These challenges mean that research output from African universities ranks amongst the world’s lowest. Only one African country, South Africa, makes it to the global top 50 in terms of research output (35th), and less than ten African countries are in the top 100, according to the global SciMago Country Ranking, which is based on data from Scopus, a large database of scientific journal articles. [10]

Neglected skills

In terms of employment, there is a mismatch between higher education and the job market outside academia. African universities have traditionally prepared students for public sector jobs, neglecting the needs of the private sector. [11] But as Africa’s population continues to grow, the public sector will struggle to absorb the increased demand for employment. And although university degrees have been the entry requirement for government jobs, skills needed for such work have neither been specified nor taught. So degrees tend to cater to bureaucratic and procedural tasks rather than innovative work: a problem for both public and private employers.

Although this is set to lead to reorientation to careers in the private sector, which may offer benefits such as better employment prospects and higher salaries, on the whole the sector is still too small to accommodate this transition (although wealthier countries may have the opposite challenge — see box 1). The result is unemployment or informal work, even for graduates.

The weak links with employment extend to postgraduate education. Throughout the continent and on all educational levels, there are huge discrepancies between job seekers’ profiles and the skills required by employers. (Box 1) University students learn little about how to apply their research, including about entrepreneurship, solving problems in communities or commercialising innovations. From this perspective, the proliferation of innovation hubs across Africa could be seen as a sign of failure of the higher education system. [11] (See our videos on Nurturing innovation IT research in Africa.) 

Iiro Kolehmainen talks to Anita Makri about collaborating with local universities, and about the role of PhD programmes and entrepreneurship in helping young people secure jobs.

Table 1, based on data from an African Economic Outlook survey of experts in 36 countries, suggests that although graduation rates are broadly similar to those in other parts of the world (with the exception of engineering fields), the degrees awarded do not necessarily align with promising career paths such as telecommunications, engineering, agriculture, IT, health, banking and education. [12] This reflects both poor guidance from universities and deficient strategic steering through national policies.

Source: African Economic Outlook (2012) Promoting youth employment [12]
  Education, humanities and arts Social sciences, business and law Science Engineering, manufacturing and construction Agriculture Health and welfare Services Other
Sub-Saharan Africa 26% 44% 12% (3% ICT) 4% 2% 5% 0% 7%
North Africa 22% 51% 8% (1% ICT) 10% 1% 6% 1% 1%
Asia 23% 30% 6% 20% 4% 9% 4% 4%
Latin America 23% 38% 7% 9% 2% 13% 3% 5%
OECD 25% 37% 10% (3% ICT) 11% 2% 11% 4% 1%
Box 1: Incompatible skills
The Economist magazine has reported that in South Africa there were more than 800,000 private sector vacancies in 2012. [13] Remarkably, in the same year, 600,000 university graduates were unemployed and had difficulties finding any job. Similar stories can be found all over Africa. The Economist explains this apparent paradox as reflecting the mismatch between skills acquired at university and those needed in jobs.

As countries get richer, policies and laws that create modern economic and industrial structures also create an expectation for the labour force to manage complex tasks in a changing work environment — but it takes time for university education and training to adapt to the demands for new skills. This may partly explain the surprising finding that economic development and wealth are no guarantee against such mismatches. Research shows that wealthier economies struggle even more than low-income countries to find suitable candidates with tertiary education. [12]

Quantity or quality?

UNESCO data show that more university students from Sub-Saharan Africa choose to study abroad — including in other African countries — than students from anywhere else in the world, except Asia. [14] But although the number of students studying abroad increased from 204,900 in 2003 to 288,200 in 2012, the percentage declined from 6 per cent to 4.5 per cent in the same period. This is one indication that domestic higher education systems are expanding, encouraging students to study at home institutions. However, there is still movement towards countries within Sub-Saharan Africa that offer better opportunities. The same UNESCO study suggests regional higher education hubs are becoming preferred destinations for students on the African continent, partially due to similarities in culture and lower travel costs. Ghana and Uganda have become the new target countries for students, and South Africa has remained an attractive destination for students at all educational levels, hosting 22 per cent of the mobile students from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This trend also reflects moves to increase the number of PhDs as more universities and graduate programmes are introduced. But World Bank forecasts suggest that, given funding and infrastructure limitations, the rise in doctorate holders is likely to be moderate in the next few years (see Figure 2). And while increasing the number of PhDs will promote development, it is not enough in itself. The quality of higher degree programmes and their relevance for Africa’s challenges are a problem most African governments need to tackle in their approach to expanding doctoral education. [15] (Click here to read the opinion piece Focus on research for development, not academic rankings.)

Projection of graduates by education level in Sub-Saharan Africa
Figure 2. Projection of graduates (million) by education level in Sub-Saharan Africa, reproduced from the AEO’s Promoting Youth Employment in Africa report and based on World Bank EdStats data. [12] ENLARGE ICON Click on the image above to enlarge

Many experts believe both national governments and higher education institutions are responsible for providing effective and appropriate degree programmes that reduce the skills mismatch, make young academics better-fitted to employment in the private sector and foster innovative and entrepreneurial skills. [16] Chasing the political goal of expanded higher education has created a situation where ‘quality’ has not thrived. In efforts to expand enrolment, more students have been admitted into degree programmes designed for much smaller groups. However, the gradually increasing involvement of the private sector in tertiary education and the demand for accountability gave reason to governments, institutions and the public to pay more regard to educational quality in recognition of the role of higher education for economic growth (16).

According to a new report by the Council of Higher Education in Africa, policies for education and teacher training must work hand in hand with teaching programmes as they are both crucial for successfully implementing plans and ideas. [17] Policies that can help improve the quality of education include providing text books free of charge, removing barriers to women’s access, reforming curricula, training teachers to implement new pedagogical concepts in the classroom, and using information and communications technologies. [18] Encouraging critical thinking, in particular, is seen as important to educational quality and so has been added to political agendas in some countries, including Nigeria (see Box 2). [19] 

Box 2: Critical thinking
Teaching approaches that encourage critical thinking are important for helping students to think for themselves, acquire an objective view of the world around them and become engaged citizens. A teaching style that supports critical thinking would include cooperative learning strategies such as brainstorming and group work, presentations and discussion among students, peer and reader questioning, dialogues and conference-style learning.

Academics have identified eight characteristics of critical thinking: [20,21]

1.     Asking questions
2.     Defining a problem
3.     Examining evidence
4.     Analysing assumptions and biases
5.     Avoiding emotional reasoning
6.     Avoiding over interpretation
7.     Considering other interpretations
8.     Tolerating ambiguity. 


Broader skills, better gender balance

For some, the breadth and flexibility of higher education is even more important. While graduates need to ‘know their field’ to find work, professional skills are also essential — including behavioural, interpersonal and transferable skills (see Box 3). Similarly, stronger knowledge of the social sciences can equip students to understand the social processes involved in applying new knowledge or technologies. And solving the 21st century’s complex problems will need contributions from various fields, requiring transdisciplinary education and participatory learning. This will help students in the modern work environment, where they no longer hold the same job for life. [22,23]. 

Box 3: Skills for employability
The ‘USEM’ model proposed by Knight and Yorke to describe the skills graduates need to increase their employability: [24]

U: Deep Understanding: specialised expertise their chosen field.
S: Skilful practice in: communication, management of time, self and resources, problem-solving and lifelong learning.
E: Efficacious beliefs: about personal identity, self-worth and personal qualities. These help students feels they can ‘make a difference’.
M: Metacognition: ‘knowing about knowing’ — self-awareness about learning and the capacity to reflect on their actions.

Another important issue for the next generation of Africa’s academics is women’s prospects for equal participation in higher education. UNESCO’s World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education shows that although globally the ratio of women to men in education rose from 0.74 in 1970 to 1.08 in 2009, the picture is different in Sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia, where men still dominate. [25] Changes in tertiary education will follow from gender-sensitive policies as well as changing societal attitudes towards girls’ education.

Dovetailing with development

The key to successfully reforming graduate training is addressing both Africa’s challenges as a whole and the local labour market’s specific needs. Africa’s graduate unemployment is 16 per cent in low income countries and 46 per cent in middle income countries. [26] Universities can help generate jobs by balancing and integrating three aims: meeting the practical demands of the labour market; producing new knowledge through research by more doctoral-level scientists; and producing well-rounded and engaged citizens through teaching.

The importance of university-industry linkages is acknowledged across Africa. For example the Association of African Universities has successfully completed a programme that strengthened links between universities and industry. [27] The goal is to give students more exposure to real world problems, increasing their employability and also producing a better trained labour force needing less training ‘on the job’.  

International collaborations also have a role; for example, the ACU Graduate Employment Network brings together education and employment professionals to discuss best practices in graduate training. And funding programmes such as the British Council’s Africa Knowledge Transfer Partnerships can offer graduates access to industry while helping businesses access the scientific knowledge, technology and skills available at universities.

Promising economic forecasts predict that the continent’s economic growth will be faster than the world average between 2013 and 2016. [28] Sustaining this growth will depend mainly on countries implementing modern economic structures that focus on innovation and technological development. So it is appropriate that ‘innovation as a priority’ is a key theme in the African Union's long-term strategy, Agenda 2063. [29]

These prospects are not only encouraging for Africa’s economy but also have implications for the future of PhD holders. According to the African Union’s panel on science, technology and innovation, the continent’s development strategy must focus on infrastructure such as telecommunications, energy and transportation. [29] Other promising fields are the health and life sciences, agriculture and engineering. The panel also recommended a focus on emerging technologies such as biotechnology — a fast-growing industry particularly relevant to agriculture.

Africa’s education systems and economic prospects go hand in hand. Efforts to align them more closely require political will, strategic investments and a solid higher education system that provides opportunities for developing new technology-driven businesses. To achieve this, many higher education institutions will need to modify their profiles, curricula, teaching methods and research activities. This will involve making critical thinking and employability skills an integral part of learning and teaching, providing courses linked to industry needs and introducing quality assurance schemes. If they can do this, universities will be at the forefront of Africa’s transformation.

Irene Friesenhahn works on the Global Young Academy’s ‘Global State of Young Scientists’ project. She can be contacted at friesenhahn.irene@gmail.com and on Twitter @GlobalYAcademy 

This article is part of the Spotlight on Making higher education work for Africa.


(1) British Council Why the UN must include higher education in the post millenium goals agenda (3 October, 2013)
(2) Delivering the Post 2015 applied science and skills agenda for Africa: the role of business A conference organised by The Planet Earth Institute (20 May 2014)
(3) Fred Hayward and Daniel Ncayiyana Confronting the Challenges of Graduate Education in Sub-Saharan Africa and Prospects for the Future (Chronicle of African Higher Education March 2014)
(4) World Bank Financing Higher Education in Africa  (World Bank, 2010)
(5) Ginette Azcona and others Harvesting the future: the case for tertiary education in Sub‐Saharan Africa. (The Maxwell School of Syracuse University, 8 June 2008).
(6) Wisdom Tettey Challenges of developing and retaining the next generation of academics: deficits in academic staff capacity at African universities (Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2010)
(7) Irene Friesenhahn and Catherine Beaudry The Global State of Young Scientists. Project Report and Recommendations (Global Young Academy, 2014)
(8) Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa Harvard University
(9) UNESCO Institute of Statistics Human Resources in R&D (UIS Fact Sheet 21, December 2012)
(10) Scimago Journal and Country Rank Country Rankings, 1996–2012 (Scimago Lab, 2007–2014)
(11) Tim Kelly Tech hubs across Africa: which will be the legacy-makers? (World Bank, 30 April 2014)
(12) African Economic Outlook Promoting Youth Employment in Africa (AEO, 2012)
(13) The Economist Education in South Africa: still dysfunctional, (21 January 2012)
(14) UNESCO Institute for Statistics Global flow of tertiary-level students (UIS, 2012)
(15) Peter Materu Higher education quality assurance in Sub-Saharan Africa: status, challenges, opportunities and promising practices (World Bank Working Paper no. 124, 2007)
(16) Imma Quintana and Adrià Calvet Current situation and future challenges of PhD studies in Sub-Saharan Africa (African-Spanish Higher Education Platform, September 2012)
(17) Council on Higher Education, South Africa Quality enhancement project: the process for public higher education institutions (CHE Institutional Audits Directorate, January 2014)
(18)Richard Paul and Linda Elder The Miniature Guide to critical thinking: concepts and tools, (The Foundation for Crititcal Thinking, 2006)
(19)N.Y.S. Ijaiya and A.T. Alabi  Teacher education in Africa and critical thinking skills: need and strategies (paper presented at the International Conference Of The Collaboration Of Educational Faculties Of West African Universities, 2010)
(20)Carole Wade Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology 22(1), 24-28 1995
(21) Critical thinking skills and teacher education ERIC Digest 3-88 (Ericae.net, 1988)
(22) Ruth Bridgestock The graduate attributes we’ve overlooked: enhancing graduate employability through career management skills (Higher Education Research and Development 28:1., 2009)
(23) D Glover and others Graduateness and employability: Student perceptions of the personal outcomes of university education (Research in Post-Compulsory Education 7:3., 2002)
(24) Peter Knight and Mantz Yorke. Assessment, learning and employability (Open University Press, 2003)
(25) UNESCO World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (UNESCO, 2012)
(26) World Bank List of Economies (World Bank, 2013)
(27) Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Strengthening Higher Education Stakeholder Relations in Africa
(28) World Bank Africa’s Pulse (World Bank, October 2013)
(29) Africa Union Agenda 2063: a shared strategic framework for inclusive growth and sustainable development. Background note. (August 2013)