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In an issue in April 2017, The Economist carried an article entitled “More can be less”, describing how African universities are recruiting too many students whereas they have access to too little funds. This is precisely what I found a decade ago when I surveyed seven universities in six African countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal and Zimbabwe)1. Over the two decades 1986-2006, student enrolment had increased by about four- to eight-fold in these universities. The average annual increase in enrolment was in the range 15-25%. This is what led to the coining of the term ‘institutional massification’, as opposed to national or regional massification, the latter expressing the high rate of enrolment (usually 50%) in higher education in a country or region. The US, most European countries and several of the South-East Asian countries have a massified higher education system.

Currently most African countries have a higher education enrolment ratio of less than 10%, and yet their public universities suffer from the negative effects of institutional massification. These include excessive staff:student ratios (in some cases as high as 1:100), overcrowded lecture theatres, insufficient laboratory equipment, abandonment of tutorials and practicals, strained library services, etc. All these have a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning and hence of the graduates.

Institutional massification can be positive or negative: positive, if adequate physical, human and financial resources are available; negative, if they are not. The student carrying capacity of the institution at any given point in time is the determining factor here, but specifying the criteria for assessing the student carrying capacity of an institution is not easy. Standards such as lecture room space per student, laboratory space for lab-based programs, number of books, periodicals and computers, etc. exist and can be used as a guide. It is important for each university to set up a cell that keeps a record of relevant institutional data and tracks the effects of massification as the student numbers increase, and then advise management on measures to be taken. Such units hardly exist in African universities.  

With the pressure to increase enrolment and with no commensurate increase in government funding, many public African universities (e.g. in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana) have resorted to what is commonly termed the running of ‘parallel programs’. Basically, in selected, high-demand programs (e.g. medicine, law) the university admits students over and above the quota of merit-based, government-sponsored students, but does so by charging these students full-cost tuition fees. The university thus runs two parallel programs, one for students on government scholarships and the other for fee-paying students. While this approach can overcome an institution’s immediate financial crisis (in 2008, nearly 60% of the students of the University of Nairobi, Kenya were paying tuition fees and about 40% of its budget was generated mainly through such fees), it does not really resolve the institutional massification problem and has hardly any impact on quality.

There is no question that the enrolment in higher education in Africa needs to increase. However, as government funding is limited and if quality is not to be sacrificed, it will not be possible for the huge demand for higher education to be met solely by public-funded universities. Private institutions are already operating in all African countries. These should be encouraged by governments but at the same time it should be ensured that they deliver quality education, as the vast majority of them operate as for-profit business enterprises. The same applies to cross-border higher education institutions.

It is also a fallacy of African governments to think of higher education purely in terms of universities. African countries should have a diversified higher education system, comprising polytechnics, technical colleges, professional institutes, etc. The current trend of converting polytechnics into universities is wrong and should be halted. At present, the demand for good, quality technicians from technical and vocational institutions is greater than for university graduates. At the same time, every African country needs a few well-resourced, research-strong universities that can attract the best academically-qualified students and African faculty for teaching and research.

Most African countries do not have an action plan that indicates the skills requirements, at all levels and specially in the important areas of science and technology, in their identified priority development areas. Such a plan, even if it needs to be periodically updated as the country develops, is vital to ensure that each country produces qualified personnel according to its developmental needs and thus avoids the current situation of unemployment of university graduates. Assisting African countries to produce such a plan is one of the goals of the World Bank-supported project ‘Partnerships for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology’ (PASET) in Africa. Under that project, Tanzania is finalizing the preparation of its skills action plan and Ethiopia and Rwanda are embarking on a similar initiative.    


1Mohamedbhai, G. (2008). The Effects of Massification on Higher Education in Africa, Association of African Universities, Accra.


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