'The vision is to create world-class universities, based on African models and solutions.' ©

Mat Wright.

African economies are developing fast, and we must recognise the role of universities in this, as the British Council's Caroline Chipperfield shows. 

Africa puts higher education at the centre of its ambitions

Agenda 2063 is the plan for Africa's transformation, agreed by the 54 members of the African Union in 2013. Agenda 2063 sets out a 50-year plan 'to build a prosperous and united Africa based on shared values and a common destiny'. The plan promotes an African 'renaissance', one that hinges on public and private investment in education, technology, science and research.

The vision for Africa in 2063 is that at least 70 per cent of all high-school graduates go on to have tertiary education, with 70 per cent of those graduating in subjects related to sciences and technology. To put this in context, the ambition is twice the current global average enrolment of 32 per cent and more than eight times the current Sub-Saharan African average of eight per cent. By meeting this challenge, and also ensuring secondary school education is universal across the continent, it would bring enrolment in Africa in 2063 approximately on a par with 2013's enrolment rates in the UK, which were at 60 per cent.

This aspiration is beginning to bear fruit. Across Africa, higher education is seen by governments as intrinsic to success, and by individuals as the means to higher incomes and more rewarding careers. It has led to a rapid expansion of higher education across the continent, with millions more students enrolling into universities. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the number of students in Africa enrolled in tertiary education has doubled from six million to more than 12 million over the last 15 years.

A bulging youth population has increased the appetite for higher education in Africa

A recent World Bank report estimated that as many as 11 million young people in Sub-Saharan Africa would be joining the job market every year for the next decade. This surge in youth population is predicted to continue for the next 60 years, with the African youth population set to equal, and then surpass, the Asian youth population in around 2078.

This appears to be good news for the economy. Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is expected to strengthen to 4.5 per cent in 2015 and five per cent in 2016, and this is partly attributable to the developing knowledge economy and newly skilled entrants into the job market.

East Africa is especially quick in meeting this demand for educational opportunities

There has been a rapid increase in the number of universities in East Africa over the last 15 years. National governments are investing in research and education, because they see economic growth in moving from agrarian to industrial and service economies. This change demands different skills and new knowledge.

Ethiopia is a remarkable case of such transformation, now widely considered to be one of a pack of ‘African tigers’, with an ambitious plan to become a middle-income economy by 2025. Ethiopia, like many countries in the region, recognises that higher education is indispensable when it comes to meeting its ambitions, and developing its citizens and institutions. Over the last five years, undergraduate enrolment has increased by 40 per cent in the country, with 60 new universities (half of which are private) created over the last 20 years. With the tertiary-aged population growing from 3.6 million to 13 million, the national higher education system will see an extra 1.7 million students enrol on programmes over the next ten years to 2025.

There are still many challenges for higher education in East Africa

The dramatic expansion of higher education in East Africa – in this context, East Africa comprises ten countries: Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya – is not without its challenges. For example, there are significant shortages of academic staff in universities across the continent. It takes around ten years for a prospective lecturer to complete their undergraduate and postgraduate study and training. This has led to a low percentage of lecturers who have a university doctorate. For example, in 2013/14, only 11 per cent of academic staff in Ethiopian higher education institutions were qualified to PhD level. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 50 per cent more students per lecturer than the global average, and it is not clear where the new recruits will come from to meet the increasing demand. The larger classes and pressure on academic staff can lead to a lower-quality student experience, and difficulty in establishing the research side of a university’s work. The recruitment, training and retention of academic staff is a critical issue here.

The expansion of student numbers qualified at undergraduate level has also given employers cause to voice a standard complaint: graduates may be educated, but lack the skills and knowledge immediately relevant to business.

What the future of higher education in East Africa could be

With these pressures come opportunities, and a chance to shape higher education to better fit various needs at several levels. For example, it can be a chance to tackle local problems by developing ties with local communities. It can be a chance to share knowledge between countries by connecting students and researchers through inter-regional mobility programmes. It can also be a chance for students from all backgrounds to gain access to higher education.

In short, the vision is to create world-class universities, based on African models and solutions, which can help transform societies and nations and tackle the local and global challenges of today and tomorrow.

Through the International Credit Mobility programme of Erasmus+, European higher education institutions can exchange students and staff with a number of non-European partner countries.

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