African Higher Education in the World: Are They (and We) Ready?

A recent workshop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso brought together key representatives of sub-Saharan African universities, ministries of education, NGOs involved in education, and business sector representatives, as well as representatives of international donor agencies, multilateral organizations and foundations.

Writing in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Francisco Marmolejo, executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, writes of the seemingly overwhelming magnitude of challenges being faced by higher education in Africa, as well as the often less apparent opportunities.

According to a review of funding in Africa published recently by the World Bank, over a period of just 15 years, the number of higher education students increased by an average of 16 percent per year, climbing from 2.7 million in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006, while the level of public funding only grew at 6 percent annually.  Despite such dramatic growth, says Marmolejo, still only 5 percent of the relevant age group attends university, which is unacceptably low in comparison to the world average of 25 percent. The combination of growth in enrollment and stagnant levels of funding is more acute in poorer countries where in the same period of time the total number of students quadrupled while the funding only increased by a mere 75 percent.

However, at the same time, writes Marmolejo, it is encouraging to see the emergence of a renewed sense of hope and optimism shared by some. In addition, there are a handful of institutional and regional initiatives –some of them highly successful- which provide additional reasons for hope. Some of those initiatives have emerged as local efforts, while others are a result of international partnerships. For instance, in matters related to preparing advanced human capital, desperately needed in the region, programs such as the Carnegie Corporation-funded Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE) have finally come up with ways to reduce the risk of brain drain. Keeping in mind that only 30 percent of Africans studying abroad return to the region after graduation, it becomes more effective to develop programs aimed at incentivizing more preparation “at home” as RISE is doing.

Francisco Marmolejo concludes his piece by suggesting that it is time for Africa to build the future it desires, and for the rest of the world to pay better attention to it. It is in everyone’s interest.

Read African Higher Education in the World: Are They (and We) Ready?