HENRY OWINO (Senior Correspondent)

More people than ever in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) now, have access to higher education. Number of students enrolled in higher education between 2000 and 2013 has doubled to millions.

Despite the region’s enrollment rate doubling every 20 years since 1978, globally SSA has the lowest participation rate in tertiary education.

These remarks were made by Dr Roberta Malee Bassett, Global Lead Tertiary Education, World Bank during Africa Ministry of Education Conference held on 17-18 February, 2020 in Nairobi, Kenya.

The two days meeting brought dons from Malawi, Benin, Tanzania, South Africa, Somalia, Sudan, Mozambique, Kenya and World Bank team among other international experts.

Dr Roberta noted higher education generates high positive returns in SSA larger than the returns observed in other regions. However, higher education and labor market are not doing their part in SSA region.

“The higher education sector in SSA has played a weak role in diffusing technology and innovation and promoting entrepreneurship.  Yet labor markets lack effective mechanisms to evaluate graduates’ skills and merit, which contribute to the skills mismatch.” Dr Roberta disclosed.

According Dr Roberta, in the region, World Bank has 15 regional projects, 4 each in Eastern and Western Africa and 7 pan-African higher education initiatives.

She revealed that Kenya and Nigeria lead other countries with 7 higher education projects each, followed by Ethiopia with 4 projects. The region has almost equal proportion of lending at 51% and Technical/Advisory 46% products.

“The World Bank has been responding to many clients demand across all regions.  Through funding, it has experienced continued growth in higher education portfolio,” Dr Roberta affirmed.

According to the World Bank Engagements in Sub-Saharan Africa, most higher education interventions in the world, Africa region constitutes about 29% of total higher education interventions.  This includes all three sub-regions combined and 50% of the total global investment in higher education.

Causes of inequity in higher education in SSA

However, over the past 20 years, higher education graduates have reported the following experiences across the region: Long job search duration of over an average of 5 years for a university graduate to find employment in Kenya.

The other is unemployment rate that is higher among university graduates than youth with only primary or secondary education in most SSA.  There are also factors beyond their control in high graduate unemployment as likely consequence of admission policies especially in francophone countries.

These challenges have contributed to higher education not being shared equally. Again higher education in the region is not equitably producing the necessary human capital.  Reasons being, selection process remains based on persistent social inequities and disparities by gender, geography and ethnicity.

Higher education in SSA region has remained elitist benefit students mostly from the most affluent, well- connected families, ‘brain drain leads’ to talented tertiary graduates leaving the SSA region after completing their education.

Children from wealthy households disproportionately benefit from free and heavily subsidized higher education. They have better access to good schools capable of equipping them with skills for further education and providing academic role models and cultural capital.

Unfortunately, children from poor households disproportionately drop out of education pipeline before accessing secondary or higher education. Such children are less likely to have access to information about admissions procedures and various relative merits of various programs of study.

Worse though, they are less likely to have access to accurate information about labor market returns and benefits of different types of higher education.

Key messages about equity patterns in higher education from SSA include rapid enrollment growth which does not lead to improved access to underrepresented groups, socioeconomic status of a student’s family which play a decisive role, gender parity stagnated and is the lowest globally, and children born in families where the head of household has a high school diploma are much more likely to go to university.

Addressing inequity in higher education

Locating the patterns and sources of inequity can inform and improve education policy making to address associated challenges more effectively.

It is important to note that there are key variations in country-level patterns of inequity globally, not only in SSA. Based on several data sources, some causes of inequity were identified include exclusion in pre-primary education, inequitable financial burdens, skewed admission policies and inequitable public subsidies.

There are important challenges in equity of opportunities including inequitable financial burdens on households involving exclusion in pre-tertiary education, admission policies that skew to certain to certain group of students, inequitable forms of public subsidies to tertiary studies and structural bottle necks in university centered systems, limits on private universities among other challenges.

Dr Roberta calls SSA region to set solid foundations and try limiting these challenges. She advised the need for proper governance, financing, quality assurance, and focus on the system by prioritizing equity.

She challenged SSA leaders to reflect on the importance of Higher Education for Africans since it is the equalizer for all categories of people.

Quoting from the former UN Secretary General, the late Kofi Annan, “The University must become a primary tool for Africa’s development in the new century.  Universities can help develop African expertise; they can enhance the analysis of African problems; strengthen domestic institutions; serve as a model environment for the practice of good governance, conflict resolution, and respect for human rights, and enable African academics to play an active part in the global community of scholars.”