Is there a technical fix for sub-Saharan universities?

In 2011, Ghana and Zambia were added to the World Bank’s list of ‘middle-income’ countries.* But on the international level, there is a large and growing disparity among peoples in regard to access to quality higher education. Only 6% of ‘college-age’ students in Africa are enrolled in higher education, compared with 20-40% in most developing countries and 72% in North America and western Europe.

Part of the problem is the disparity in internet penetration. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that 16% of sub-Saharan Africans (about 140m people) are using the internet this year and that 6.7% of households have access – mainly in urban centres. Even in Kenya, where an undersea cable from the UAE has been operating since 2009, 72% of the population lack internet access (and 11% lack telephone access). Africa still represents very high unmet demand for telecoms.

Beyond the lack of that infrastructure, higher education in sub-Saharan Africa faces other challenges: declining public funding for teaching and research, reliance on donors, low pay, political interference, inability to set research agendas, and low research productivity. In the meantime, costs are rising and enrolments are rising faster.


Funding and students

Public expenditure on higher education in sub-Saharan Africa as a percentage of GDP remained at roughly 0.8% of GDP between 1990 and 2006, short of the OECD average of 1.21%. But whereas public spending on education per student doubled in non-African developing countries between 1990 and 2006, in Africa it declined overall, from about $2900 to $2000 per student. The decline was fastest in higher education. This reflects the increase in HE student numbers as well as a shift in resources to primary and secondary education, consistent with the Millennium Development Goals (see below).

The University of Ghana had a three-fold increase in students (to 37,000) in the 10 years to 2010-11. In the country as a whole, 9,000 university students in 1987 grew rapidly to 115,000 in 2010. Ghana spent a greater share of GDP in HE in 2009 than did the UK (2% vs 1.3%), and public funding per student more than doubled between 2006 and 2010. Even so, that meant about $1500 per student per year – less than 40% of that recommended by Ghana’s National Council for Tertiary Education. Furthermore, when 94% of public funding goes on salaries, tuition fees for some students and student loans were introduced, and universities seek consultancy work.**

The technology fix

Online and distance provision can reduce the cost of education and widen access to it. Although there is limited ICT infrastructure in Africa, it is improving: the expanding undersea fibre optic cable network (see diagram) around the continent is quickly increasing the number of living rooms from which MOOCs can be accessed. For those who have access there is now high-quality content online, much of it freely available.


Development is made more difficult when jobs in engineering and other areas go unfilled because of skills deficits. In Tanzania (categorised a low-income country), an initiative between the University of Dar es Salaam, local businesses, the World Bank and Coursera (a MOOCs platform) is helping to fill that gap. The project is developing an IT curriculum to be accessible through Coursera and aligned with the needs of the Tanzanian private sector. The World Bank thinks Coursera can play an important role in Tanzania’s education system.

One could easily argue that this represents appropriate development desired by Tanzanians. But unsurprisingly, there are concerns. At a meeting of MIT's Learning International Networks Consortium last week, the rectors of the African Virtual University (AVU) and Virtual University of Pakistan said that their experiences, over more than a decade, was that transferring higher education from the west does not work. Apart from the cultural context issue, a problem with MOOCs was their reliance on video that requires good bandwidth (a problem that can be found in rural Europe as well as Tanzania). But with the improving quality of internet connections, the AVU is considering integrating MOOCs into its multinational eLearning project across 21 African countries.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in 2000 with the aim to eradicate poverty by 2015. One of the eight goals is for universal primary education and the achievement has been impressive: the proportion of children in school in developing countries rose from 81% in 1999 to 88% in 2010, and this was funded by a doubling of international aid for education to $4.2bn in 2007.

But this commitment is also being questioned. It was based on data that demonstrated higher returns for primary education relative to other levels, including vocational training. Tanzania, Kenya and other countries were encouraged to focus resources in order to meet the MDG. The unintended effect, it is argued, has been to increase the capacity gap mentioned above: not enough doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, and planners have been produced. The approach has not been balanced.

Google to the rescue?

It was reported last week that Google is ‘seeking to enhance teaching, learning and research’ in Uganda by improving internet access and improving communications between institutions. The idea is to facilitate the adoption of Google Apps for education in sub-Saharan Africa.

It appears that emerging markets are less dependent on the developed world than ever before but this is true for China, not so for Chad (where, as in Tanzania, only 2% of the population were in higher education in 2010). Online and distance technology will be needed even to begin to meet unmet demand in Africa, India, and elsewhere, but it may take more than Going Google to redress structural geopolitical inequality.

William Lawton & Annie Burrows

*Middle-income countries are defined as those with gross national incomes (GNIs) between $1,026 and $12,475 per year.

**Ernest Aryeetey, Vice-Chancellor, University of Ghana, Presentation to the General Conference  of the International Association of Universities, Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, 29 November 2012.