Casual readers of optimistic headlines about Africa’s high growth rates and record levels of foreign investment might be forgiven for thinking all is well on the continent – or at least that, with ‘Africa Rising’, all will be well before too long. But many of the perspectives and figures underlying these simplistic narratives obscure the complex reality of rising inequality, success in only certain specific sectors, and – crucially – jobless growth.
Indeed, on the continent itself, there is a rising sense that Africa’s growth isn’t creating enough jobs for the millions entering the labour market each year. By some estimates, 50% of young people in South Africa, and 40% in Kenya and the DRC, are unemployed. In Nigeria, approximately 30 million youths are jobless. And the International Labour Organisation estimates that in 2012, 247 million workers in sub-Saharan Africa were in vulnerable employment. Also worrying is the fact that having an education does not seem to help. In response to an advert for 100 drivers in Nigeria last year, the Dangote Group received 13,000 applicants including 8,460 with bachelor degrees, 704 with masters and 6 with PhDs. With Africa’s youth population expected to double by 2045, this could prove to be a ticking time bomb; one only needs to look at the likes of Tunisia and Egypt for a forewarning of what a growing numbers of highly-educated unemployed young people can lead to.
Broadly-speaking, there are two ways of looking at the problem: 1) the economy’s demand for labour isn’t sufficiently strong to generate enough jobs because growth isn't fast enough and/or the sectors which are growing are not labour intensive enough; or 2) the supply of potential workers isn’t appropriately educated and skilled for the jobs that could be available.
In reality, both are true. However, the latter can influence the former, and it is the latter to which we will now turn.
As high levels of unemployment amongst graduates suggests, African universities are churning out armies of job seekers rather than job creators. Higher education does not even appear to be correlated with higher employment in a number of places. In Uganda, for example, 19% of Ugandan graduates are unemployed, compared to 7% of secondary school leavers. And in Nigeria, graduates are 5% less likely to be employed than those with just a basic education.
On top of this, many of Africa’s best students are choosing to study abroad. According to figures from 2006, one out of every sixteen students in sub-Saharan Africa is enrolled outside the continent, and some countries even have more students abroad than at home. Nigerian students are estimated to spend $500 million annually in Western universities, a staggering 70% of the national university budget.
But it’s not just students who have fled. Half the continent's researchers, according to estimates, are in Europe, driven abroad by poor facilities and salaries up to 20 times lower. Unsurprisingly then, Africa’s output of research is amongst the lowest globally.
So what’s gone wrong? To start with, investment has not kept up with the growth in student numbers. Between 1991 and 2006, the number of students in higher education exploded from 2.7 million to 9.3 million, a growth of 16% annually, but expenditure only grew by 6%; investment has remained at 20% of educational budgets.
Meanwhile, funding from international donors has increasingly concentrated on basic education, believing this is the best way to alleviate poverty. In the late-1980s, 17% of the World Bank’s global educational spending used to be focused on higher education, but this had declined to 7% by the late-1990s.
This might suggest that the solution to Africa’s higher education problems is simply more funding. This is undoubtedly important, but alone will not be sufficient. Giving campuses a fresh lick of paint and new computers isn’t suddenly going to attract leading scholars and students ahead of the global competition.
Instead, a more radical shift is needed to give Africa’s tertiary education a boost. One possibility is building an African ‘Ivy League’ institution.
The US is what it is today in large part because it advances the most revolutionary science and is home to ground-breaking firms. Institutions like Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been instrumental in this process by attracting the brightest from across the globe to solve the hardest problems.
If Africa had such an elite institution, it could potentially attract leading scholars, train students with the skills society needs, and help reverse the brain drain and capital flight. Perhaps most importantly, it could also act as a beacon of excellence for others colleges on the continent.
Many will no doubt question the wisdom of concentrating funds on one university when it could be disbursed amongst many, but the current system clearly does not seem to be working, and the benefit of elite institutions elsewhere – economically, socially and in raising the standard for education more broadly – is plain to see. Stanford University’s alumni, for example, have founded companies that generate more than $2.7 trillion in annual revenue – equivalent to the 10th largest economy in the world – while MIT’s alumni have sales of $2 trillion. Crucially, these benefits are spread nationally and globally.
Furthermore, there are strong pragmatic reasons an African elite university should be appealing. At the moment, the most prestigious African journals are published in Oxford and Yale but surely it would be more practical to do research on Africa in Africa. Studies into tropical diseases, agriculture and public policy would surely be best conducted on the continent so academics can work with professionals at the coalface.
The battleground of the future will be fought on ideas and technology. Many countries are preparing for this by investing in institutions modelled on the world’s best. Qatar invited and funded Georgetown and Cornell Universities to set up satellite campuses in Doha. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia opened in 2009 with a $10 billion endowment and has recruited its leaders from institutions such as the California Institute of Technology (currently the top-ranked university globally). China is investing $250 billion a year in building a world-class education system, and the rise of Asia has notably been accompanied by a corresponding rise to prominence of Asian universities. Meanwhile, in Africa, only one university – the University of Cape Town – is ranked in the world’s top 200.
Creating an African elite university able to compete with the world’s best will undoubtedly be immensely challenging. Many millions would need to be raised, and the funnelling of resources into one institution could necessarily mean less funding for other initiatives. In fact, politically and financially, a regional institution may make more sense than a national or pan-continental one. Furthermore, given intense global competition, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that the best students and researchers would immediately rush to enrol. Building a gleaming campus is one thing, but building a reputation for excellence is necessarily a long-term project.
However, despite the challenges, this would be a project worth striving for. In a global marketplace where human capital is increasingly the differentiator, Africa needs its own incubator of ideas to compete and kick-start the reform of higher education. An elite university that Africans can be proud of could make a real sustainable difference to the continent and provide a lasting legacy for the future of Africa.
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