Unleashing Mass Access -- Tallying Collateral Losses

The unprecedented expansion of higher education in Africa is often described as “massive.” Still, the enrollment rate hovers around 5-6 percent.

April 28, 2013

At a conference this month to honor the work of Philip G. Altbach, a number of regional and international issues of the field were presented by world’s leaders in international higher education. It became clear that the issues that confront different regions of the world are basically similar from access to funding, from quality to unemployment. This editorial is prompted by this dialogue and focuses on the opportunities and ramifications of expanding access to higher education in Africa.

The Growth—and the Gains

The unprecedented expansion of the higher education system in Africa is often described as “massive” Still, the enrollment rate hovers around 5-6 percent. Martin Trow’s taxonomy of higher education recognizes three stages— elite, massive and universal. Africa, with a single-digit enrollment rate uncomfortably sits on the “elite” landscape—far removed from mass access and light years away from universal access. Africa has  many mountains yet to climb to move beyond elite.

At a national level, many countries that had just one “flagship” university, opened a dozen— in some cases more—in a short span of time. In some countries, as in Malawi—arguably a country with the lowest enrollment rates in the world—the growth however has been in enrollments within existing institutions. Where hundreds and a few thousands were accommodated, now several hundreds of thousands are hosted.

If the expansion of public institutions is remarkable, the growth of private institutions could be described as “phenomenal”. Dozens now adorn the higher education landscape although their “market” share still remains small despite garnering some 25 per cent in many countries already.

The expansion of the higher education system has provided opportunities for many students—an estimated 10 million now in the continent. It has also contributed to the development of the region by providing knowledge workers, albeit far from sufficient. What is noticeable however is that, the steady and enviable growth of the African economy has not been credited to the remarkable growth of the higher education system. It appears that the issues of dwindling quality in higher education and un(der)employment may have upstaged the ostensible contribution of massive higher education to growing economies.

The Emerging Hurdles

To be sure, Africa has to expand its system much more to address its insatiable appetite for access and to compete with more globalized knowledge societies and economies.

Developments in higher education have been guided by internal and external factors including the liberalization of the global economy and the transformative capacity of the information and communication technologies. In many cases, the expansion of African higher education has not followed a well-organized and systematic approach.

Lately higher education has begun to reflect campaign manifestos and narrowly-defined expansion regimes influenced by ethnic, cultural and religious influences. From Kenya to Ghana the competing parties included university education  in their campaign agendas. As a consequence, the motives, the modalities, the locations of institutions, and the “partisan” recruitment and enrollment in higher education are now a cause for concern. The unwieldy politics of African “democratization” are ominously creeping onto the higher education landscape.

Egalitarianism Trumping Differentiation?

The wave of “massification” as well as increasing number of “village universities” stand out, as challenges and threats in advancing competitive institutions in Africa.  Africa needs “village” institutions in great numbers, much like the United States needs community colleges, but not at the expense of the quality or innovation essential to a knowledge economy.

To be sure, available resources for all sectors—even when backed by internal commitment and external support—are limited.  If all institutions are to be treated equally the national potential may be greatly degraded as resources are already spread thin with the shift from the flagship” to the new ones. The challenge remains to strike a healthy balance between expanding access and advancing competitiveness. The time for serious strategic and systematic differentiation of the higher education system in Africa has arrived.

Hypocrisy in Quality Control: Officiating Double Standard?

Expanding access has had considerable impact on the quality of higher education around the world. While measuring quality has always been tricky, Philip Altbach’s musing “on the general decline of the qualifications of academic staff in a classroom” is illustrative. Some of the major players including the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and the Nigerian President, Jonathan Goodluck, described current quality as “dangerous” and “embarrassing”. At a 2012 graduation ceremony at Makerere University, Mahmoud Mamdani in concurrence noted the “quality of teaching reached an all-time low.”  The uneasy relationship between access and quality in African higher education cannot be clearer.

In the meantime, the hypocrisy of a double standard in demanding quality in private, but not necessarily in public institutions is troubling. Cases abound where publicly funded institutions are conferred the status of a “university” while they are no better than “dignified” high schools; and yet this status for deserving private institutions may be denied. The blame could be fairly distributed across stakeholders including students, parents, and non-governmental entities who often demand “good service” from private, but not public, providers. Private institutions should and must be regulated, but the quality demanded of private institutions should be demanded of public ones.

Employment—The Sole Incentive of Access?

The discussion of access often leads to concern for employment and employability.  While access to higher education in the region is still “elitist”, the status of un(der)employment, ironically, remains “massive”. Since the Arab spring, the issue of (un)employment has attracted global attention in social, economic, media and political circles.

Access to higher education has often been conceived as simply providing the opportunity for employment and increased economic status. And yet, the broader contribution of higher education to cultural development, personal growth and livelihood, community welfare, and advancement of “democratic” values has had less traction.


Expanding access to higher education remains vital to the development of the continent. But this could be possible, among others, through the provision of good quality education. While efforts to establish “centers of excellence” at sub-regional, regional and continental levels are progressing, they are not being cultivated in many countries—at least not in a consistent or systemic manner.

There should be no qualms about expanding higher education in Africa, if its citizens are to live better and function in the international knowledge society. But now the focus should shift from expansion to consolidation, from egalitarianism to differentiation, and from access to success.




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