Public Higher Education in Crisis

Published on 9th January 2007

(Continued from last week’s How Relevant is Education In Africa?)

Despite the hundreds of public universities established in Sub-Saharan Africa, the enrollment ratio of students in the 18-23 age group is less than 5 per cent; the world's lowest compared with 50 per cent in the developed countries. Thus the need for more universities can never be more emphasized. 

This has not only prompted the emergence of a large number of private universities in an astonishing rate but also attracted a number of universities from the developed world to provide educational services in African countries. This is done either by opening branches or through distance learning. Three categories of universities are now in existence: 

Public Universities    

Each country inherited a university from the Colonial Era that remained colonial and paid greater attention to its standing in the eyes of the foreigners than to the relevance of its activities to the needs of its country.

All subsequently established universities took the earlier universities as models and became colonial. They grew up with irrelevant goals, alien curriculum that hinders innovative and creative development, rules and regulations that distance the university from its community and that preserve the dependency relationship. Coupled to these are the problems of poor finance (internal and external), the pressing need for expansion in enrollment and in some circumstances, civil wars that have resulted in abandonment of campuses and the flight of staff and students in exile.

Public higher education in Africa is in crisis. It has not only failed to respond to the aspirations of the people, sustain an acceptable standard of instruction or research but also failed to maintain its infrastructure, libraries and personnel. If this deterioration were to continue, complete collapse of institutions may result. This may not be allowed to happen physically for self pride, but through the process of   evaluation and accreditation that is currently underway.

Private Universities 

A noticeable feature of the higher education institutions in Africa is the surge of Private Universities in the last few years .Two obvious reasons can explain the surge: “The public failure theory” and the “demand absorption situation”. The overwhelming majority of these private universities are church owned and church oriented. Thus evangelization will be the third reason for the unprecedented growth of private universities in Africa. 

It is difficult to give an accurate estimate of these universities, since the number is continuously growing. The study undertaken by the Association of African Universities on private education in Africa in 2000 had listed 80 private universities, but this is now outdated. The table below shows a comparative list of public and private universities in some countries in Sub- Saharan Africa:













































 +12 other private institutions





+42 other private institutions





+12 other private institutions

In Nigeria, 8 private universities were reported in 2004 while 24 private universities were coated in 2006. Despite the fact that the number of private universities matches that of public universities in many countries, the student enrollment is much higher in public universities.

The different education policies of the colonial powers in the growth of church- oriented schools in British colonies can be clearly seen in the large number of church-oriented universities in former British colonies. Sudan is an exception, since almost all private institutions are profit–driven. 

Foreign Universities  

With Globalization and the inclusion of education in the GATS, cross-border education in Africa is gaining momentum .Although it did not, as yet, take a large share in the higher education sector, however, with the free movement of multinationals, the affluent elites within the African communities will increasingly opt for the prestigious and accredited universities of the developed world, resident   or abroad. 

If Sub-Saharan Africa is to develop and contribute to the present knowledge and information era, a vivid higher education sector must be a major actor. This requires the cooperation of all stakeholders. It is fortunate that the World Bank, after inflicting great damage to higher education in Africa, has admitted that its earlier policies were erroneous.  

It is very difficult to interfere with the missions and objectives of both private and foreign education institutions. Attention should be directed towards public institutions for they are in crisis that begs rescue. For any party, the following options are available: 

1. Feel unconcerned.
2. Adopt one-sided colonial policies.
3. Enter in partnership for the mutual benefits.

The first option should not be taken. It is very difficult for the new comers (China, India and possibly Turkey) to win new friends by adopting the second option. Partnership for the benefit of both parties is the only reasonable option. 

Cooperation agreements and twinning programs with some universities in countries of special interest can be established. Research projects, relevant to the African problems, (increasing crop productivity, fighting desertification and eradication of endemic diseases among others), can be initiated. If sincere effort is exerted and suitable finance is secured, success is the natural outcome. Higher education institutions will then feel confident enough to critically examine the higher education philosophy, policies and curricula to obtain a real African University desperately needed for the development of the continent. 

In return, the other party's technology, expertise, goods and services will slowly diffuse to the African continent.

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