Rationing and Rationalizing in Africa

The issue of financing higher education is increasingly a matter of interest to diverse stakeholders: governments, universities, ministries, academics, staff, students, and families/guardians.

August 25, 2013

A certain African country  pays academics handsomely for publishing scholarly articles. It also rewards them for graduating Masters and PhD students even though academics are  employed to do just that. Compensation is such that the more productive an academic is, the more resources at his/her disposal. In an ​Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA) study that culminated in the book, Financing Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa*, this practice is an anomaly.

The issue of financing higher education is increasingly a matter of interest to diverse stakeholders: governments, universities, ministries, academics, staff, students, and families/guardians. Even in the richest countries—and universities—in the world, the issue of funding is a constant concern and to be sure, there is never enough.

In African countries in severe financial straits, it is intriguing how institutions even operate—to be more cynical, even open their doors to students—when they only receive a fraction of their operational budget from governments without additional sources of funding. A case in point is Zambia where the universities have been receiving only 20 per cent of their budget from the government  for a number of years. In the case of Tanzania, the budgetary requests of the University of Dar es Salaam has increased from nearly Tanzanian Shillings 27 billion in 2000-01 to 132 billion in 2009-10—an increase of nearly 80 per cent; and yet government approval rates decreased from 82.6 per cent to 37 per cent during the same period.

In Ethiopia, a country with unprecedented higher education expansion and massive input to the sector, universities face wide ranging challenges from accommodating expanded enrollment to unattractive academic salaries that are continuously devalued by high inflation. As a paradox, a number of these institutions however are known to return quite a large sum of unused funds to the treasury. For instance, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia’s flagship, returned 60 per cent and 37 per cent of the total budget in 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively. The point here is that, while resources are critical, their deployment and utilization are contingent on systems that are autonomous, efficient, and professional.

In Uganda, the liberalization of the economy has been accompanied by the expansion of privatization in higher education both in public and private domains. For instance, Makerere University, Uganda’s flagship, has expanded enrollment by what Philip G. Altbach calls the “privatization of public universities”,  aggressively recruiting more privately and fewer publicly funded students. The University has increased its revenue from 30 per cent in 2000 to more than 65 per cent in 2009/10 to 80 per cent recently. This aggressive resource mobilization—currently practiced or considered by other institutions locally and regionally—has been a financial boon, for many academics and university departments. Many however maintain that the “Makerere miracle” contributed to  “mission creep” on quality and research productivity.

Botswana, one of the few middle income countries in the continent, recognizes that “diamonds are not forever” and anticipates decreased revenues from the diamond boon within a decade. As a consequence, the country is striving to streamline resources required to develop its human capital while closely examining existing funding schemes that have been borne predominantly by the government.

Zimbabwe is one of the growing numbers of African countries where governments are creating universities in every political/ethnic region without particular regard to need, relevance or viability. Zimbabwe fulfilled that pledge just recently. In the meantime, the country’s popular Cadetship Scheme, a funding model for needy students, has been struggling with massive debts that have had serious academic and management consequences.

Establishing universities in every administrative region of a country is not simply unique to Zimbabwe. It indeed has become common to many election and political manifestos in Africa, from Ethiopia to South Africa, from Ghana to Zambia—probably as artifact of the democratization process in the continent. Critics however lambaste such expansion schemes as reckless and assert that resources are being used ineffectively only to establish the proverbial “glorified high schools”. In a number of countries, these developments have been instrumental in pursuing egalitarianism in higher education at the expense of diversification and consolidation.

In Madagascar, the system of compensation has been largely faulted for inflating their teaching loads. Disproportionate amounts of "complementary hours" are paid to contract and full-time academics and contribute to budget inefficiencies due to government-defined levels of teaching duties. Complementary hours can reach as many as four to five times the obligatory hours per year per academic, and have become a means for most academics to supplement low earnings while consuming resources needed for other academic activities.

In Malawi, the recurrent unit cost of university education, in terms of GDP per capita, is the highest in the world. According to the World Bank, in the period 2000 to 2008, the recurrent unit cost stood at 2,147 per cent of GDP per capita—which is seven times more than the Sub-Saharan African average. And yet, government subsidies to public higher education which runs as high as 90 per cent disproportionately benefits students from the highest income quintile.

To be sure, in many African countries, the volume of government support to higher education has increased considerably. Notwithstanding the challenges, the Cadetship Scheme in Zimbabwe and Trust Fund in Ghana represent some of these initiatives. Although some countries may not have much wiggle room to increase their higher education budget, they still need to expand their small higher education sector.

To sum up, South Africa is the country in the opening paragraph. In South Africa, the system rewards productivity in a very direct and also generous manner. For instance, for every accredited journal article a professor publishes, the institution (where the academic is based) is rewarded as much as 120,000 Rands (12,000 USD). While arrangements vary as to how this money is allocated between the institution and the author, in certain cases, funds may go directly into the private account of the academic. Regardless of the underlying issues surrounding the measures of productivity, many African scholars and administrators are likely to envy South African institutions and their rewards and incentives.

*Damtew Teferra (Editor, Expected Fall, 2013), Financing Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Palgrave MacMillan.


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