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Higher education in Africa – time to pull out the stops

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Higher Education in Africa

At a candid discussion yesterday with African ministers of education and a range of education experts from the public and private sectors, one thing was very clear – that higher education was recognized by everyone in the room as being critical for Africa’s development in the 21st century. All participants—from the Gambia’s education minister, who pointed out that his country went without a university for 30 years after independence and was facing a severe resource gap, to his counterpart in Senegal who wanted to catch up with Tunisia on the number of students enrolled in universities—agreed that higher education was key to diversifying Africa’s growing economies and reducing their dependence on natural resource extraction. 

There’s another reason higher education is so important in Africa—the region has burgeoning numbers of young people, some 7 to 10 million of whom knock on the doors of the labor market every year. These young people constitute a huge opportunity for Africa. Yet of today’s unemployed in the region, a full 60 percent are youth. Good quality, relevant education that goes well beyond the primary stage will turn out the types of employable graduates and professionals that Africa so urgently needs. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs—but also agriculturists and environmentalists. This morning’s news about intensifying drought in West Africa’s Sahel region, with 10 million people thought to be short of food, only underscores the great urgency to build human resource bases in each country that can help tackle the environmental and health issues that confront Africa.

Higher Education in Africa

I came away from the session with some important takeaways that I hope will further shape the World Bank’s work on education in Africa. First, and perhaps foremost, there’s a broad recognition that government alone cannot increase access to higher education. Only about five percent of the relevant age group has access to university education in Africa—compare this to the world average of 25 percent. What this means is that Africa will have to pull out the stops to catch up, and to do this, the way must be smoothed for the private sector to take on a bigger role, and for parents and students to share the costs where possible. Public budgets are already stretched, and so, if Africa needs to expand higher education, much of the extra funds will need to come from donors, citizens, and private investors.  This growth will have to be managed smartly -- to protect opportunities for poorer students.

Second, governments need to pay attention to regulation to cope effectively with what I think is going to be a boom in higher education.  Quality assurance systems are needed, but regulators must be effective, and not stifle innovation and technological advances or reward old-fashioned methods. In fact, institutions must either innovate or perish, as our Vice President for Africa, Obiageli Ezekwesili concluded emphatically.  Also, more information needs to be available to parents and students from both public and private sector institutions.  For instance, do universities produce graduates who get jobs within a year after they graduate?

This allows both consumers and funders of education to make more informed choices. 

Higher Education in Africa

Finally—and I think I can’t stress this enough—the World Bank and multilateral organizations should play a role in facilitating exchange of knowledge between African countries, as well as between Africa and other developing countries. Africa could leapfrog outdated methods and technologies by learning what worked in other places—such as India or Singapore—and equip itself for its own knowledge revolution.

Africa has the youngest population on earth. Families go to extraordinary lengths to educate their children, with the expectation that they will become healthy, productive, well rounded adults. We have an awesome responsibility to respond by creating good quality education opportunities, and an awesome chance to change the world for the better.



Christopher Thomas

Advisor to the Education Global Practice

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