How student-focused higher education is the future

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The first course I took at the university in 2009 had at least three hundred students enrolled. We all attended course meetings in large lecture halls and most of us interacted very little with our professors unless we struggled in a course. I took a course in sociology because I was interested in the subject. Many of the things I learned were useful for general knowledge of society and economic theory. Like many Ghanaian undergraduates at the time, I was not completely sure how my degree would relate to my future work. Most of my peers hoped to complete their degrees and enter the banking sector or roll the dice by pursuing a law degree. Others made plans to pursue a master’s degree abroad.

My experience seems to reflect a common one when it comes to higher education, particularly with respect to the student experience. Africa is a young continent, and the right investment in its young men and women will drive economic growth and strengthen critical institutions. Effective and robust institutions of higher education should lead the way. Higher education, in turn, must be prioritized and reoriented to ensure that enrolled and would-be students are able to engage in critical thinking and gain skills that help them succeed in the global market. A more student-centered education is necessary to achieve the benefits of higher education.

 In recent years, sub-Saharan Africa has seen an increase in its higher education enrollment. The World Bank published a report entitled Sharing Higher Education’s Promise Beyond the Few in sub-Saharan Africa (2017), which surveys trends in higher education and access to higher education opportunities. The report indicates that from 1970 to 2013, sub-Saharan African countries saw their tertiary institutions’ enrollment grow at 4.3 percent compared to the 2.8 percent global average. This was due to the high enrollment level of approximately 7.2 million students in 2013 as compared with fewer than 400,000 in 1979.1 Despite this growth, enrollment rates lagged behind other global regions, with countries in sub-Saharan Africa registering a lower gross enrollment ratio in tertiary education than East and South Asia and the Pacific.2

That said, today, more students across sub-Saharan Africa have enrolled in tertiary education than in the last four decades,3 and enrollment is expected to keep rising due to Africa’s unprecedented population growth. Nearly 60 percent of the total African population is under the age of 25, and this is projected to increase by nearly 50 percent by 2050.4

The population trends imply a steady increase in future demand for higher education. Young people and mid-career professionals will need access to affordable and quality higher education to support learning at all stages of life. For instance, 59% of young people between the ages of 20-24 years have been projected to complete secondary education by 2030.5 For instance, Ghana recently introduced a free high school education. This important policy decision is likely to create more demand for university-level education in the near future.  Although universities have expanded to accommodate the growing enrollment rate, there is still pressure on sub-Saharan African countries to further expand access due to the increasing number of secondary school graduates.6 The rising demand has implications for the student experience. 

From a student’s perspective, the present higher education system is already showing signs of strain. Universities in sub-Saharan Africa are already challenged with overcrowded lecture halls, limited access to computers, library and database resources, and well-equipped laboratory facilities.7 Professors are burdened by excessive teaching loads and have 50% more students than the global average.8 Many professors are overstretched to take on more tasks than they can handle, and the inadequacy of teaching or research assistants to help with their heavy teaching load has resulted in spending more time teaching than balancing it with quality research output. Consequently, students do not always get timely feedback on their assignments, let alone research projects, especially, when an instructor is handling many students in a semester.9 Surprisingly, public spending on higher education on average (US$2,445 per student on average), is three times more than what other low- and lower-middle-income countries spend.10 However, this higher investment appears not to have translated into a markedly improved student experience.

Higher education in many sub-Saharan Africa countries also seems to be struggling to produce graduates with skills relevant to the labor market. This may indicate a misalignment of the academic programs that develop skills with little relevance for the labor market.11 It may be one of many factors driving graduate unemployment or underemployment on the continent. In some countries, many students are studying social sciences and humanities in comparison to science-based courses creating skills gaps, with graduates entering jobs that are unrelated to their acquired qualifications.12 While humanities and liberal arts degrees are important, these programs should include critical thinking and problem-solving training, hands-on experience and competencies that will enable students to acquire the skills that are relevant for the 21st Century labor market. It is possible to improve the student experience in social science and humanities to ensure that students receive a liberal education while also being prepared for the job market. This will require a more student-centered approach to teaching and learning.

In response, many young people are migrating abroad in pursuit of training and research opportunities, as well as attempting to acquire practical skills for the labor market.13 One of the reasons for going abroad for education is the prospect of an enhanced student experience. In 2017 alone some 374,000 Africans studied overseas, and many of these students never returned.14 This trajectory is contributing to the brain drain phenomenon which is affecting the continent greatly. Universities must incorporate teaching methods that improve student experiences and enable them to develop critical skills that make them change agents of their environment. Universities need to play a role in inspiring students to stay and transform the continent, other than looking for greener educational pastures elsewhere.

Sub-Saharan African countries are showing signs of promising economic growth with countries like Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire reporting higher economic growth.15 For this growth to be fully realized and benefit the masses, African governments must prioritize education especially by investing in well-equipped research and computer laboratories and new infrastructure to cater to the growing population of future students.

Finally, African universities’ curriculums should be tailored to train young people relevant skills for the 21st Century.16 And they should offer a broad range of programs such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and social sciences that focus on skills development and training that are relevant to the socio-development of African economies. Higher education has the potential to develop skilled graduates that can contribute to innovative research and national development. The starting point of discussion should be the student experience.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Leaders of Africa.

  1. Darvas, P., Gao, S., Shen, Y., and Bawany, B. (2017). Sharing Higher Educations Promise beyond the Few in Sub-Saharan Africa, i-xx. doi: 10.1596/978-1-4648-1050-3_fm
  2. Darvas, P., Gao, S., Shen, Y., and Bawany, B. (2017); Arias, O. David K. E. and Indhira S. (2019). The Skills Balancing Act in Sub-Saharan Africa: Investing in Skills for Productivity, Inclusivity, and Adaptability. doi: 10.1596/978-1-4648-1149-4
  3. Darvas, P., Gao, S., Shen, Y., and Bawany, B. (2017); The Economist (2019). A booming population is putting strain on Africa’s universities. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/08/10/a-booming-population-is-putting-strain-on-africas-universities
  4. Bill and Melinda Gates (2018). Goalkeepers Report: The Stories behind the data. https://www.gatesfoundation.org/goalkeepers/report/2018-report?download=false
  5. The Economist (2019).  A booming population is putting strain on Africa’s universities.
  6. Arias, O. David K. E. and Indhira S. (2019).The Skills Balancing Act in Sub-Saharan Africa: Investing in Skills for Productivity, Inclusivity, and Adaptability.
  7. Darvas, P., Gao, S., Shen, Y., & Bawany, B. (2017). Sharing Higher Educations Promise beyond the Few in Sub-Saharan Africa
  8. The Economists (2019). A booming population is putting strain on Africa’s universities.
  9. Ismael Munene (2016), Kenya’s universities are in the grip of a quality crisis. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/kenyas-universities-are-in-the-grip-of-a-quality-crisis-54664; Bacwayo, K. E., Nampala, P. and Oteyo, I. N. (2017). Challenges and opportunities with supervising graduate students enrolled in African universities. International Journal of Education and Practice, 5(3): 29-39
  10. Arias, O. David K. E. and Indhira S. (2019). The Skills Balancing Act in Sub-Saharan Africa: Investing in Skills for Productivity, Inclusivity, and Adaptability.
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Mba, J. C. (2017) Challenges and Prospects of Africa’s higher education. https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/challenges-and-prospects-africas-higher-education
  14. The Economist (2019). A booming population is putting strain on Africa’s universities.
  15. Africa Growth Initiative (2010). Foresight Africa: Top priorities for Continent in 2019. Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/BLS18234_BRO_book_007_WEB.pdf
  16. Thione Niang (2019). Foresight Africa: Raising the voice of young people in governance. Africa Growth Initiative, Brookings Institution
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