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Higher education in sub-Saharan Africa: crisis in growth or structural crisis?

by Jacques GIRI

Spectacular growth

Higher education is certainly one of the fastest evolving aspects of societies in sub-Saharan Africa, with the 20 000 students of 1960 up to around 500 000 by the end of the eighties and almost twice as many teachers in African higher education now as there were students in 1960.

Over the last three decades, both states and aid agencies clearly put top priority on developing education systems in general and higher education in particular and, in this, the states were doing no more than reflecting that very common attitude of African societies whereby education on Western lines and higher education especially, are the keys to social success and high incomes. Paper qualifications were seen as the way into “ modern “ society and in particular in many countries, to that most coveted part of it - the civil service.

However, in spite of spectacular progress, the level of attainment (in quantitative terms) remains limited. While South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines have populations of 40-60 million and more than I million students each, sub-Saharan Africa, with its 500 million people and 500000 students, lags far behind. Nor is the gap due solely to different levels of economic development; the per capita GNP in Thailand and the Philippines is comparable to that of Cd’Ivoire and Cameroon.

This twofold assessment reveals both the amount of ground that has been covered and the gap that exists between the sub-continent of Africa and the newly industrialised and industrialising countries of Asia.

Development fails to follow growth

This dual assessment is made in the context of the crisis economic first and foremost, but affecting many other aspects of society and posing many other questions - which has struck almost all African nations and from which there seems no clear way out.

The African tes which took power at the dawn of independence saw educational development as a necessary condition for a modern society and its economic foundation. But the considerable effort the continent has made with its education since 1960 has borne little fruit and it has been clear for some years now that the essential basis was unsatisfactory and that the effort has failed to generate the anticipated economic improvement. In the face of multiple short-term problems, most African states have, since the early eighties tended to put less priority on teaching but it is primary rather than higher education which has tended to bear the brunt.

The crisis has led African society to question the aims of the education system. Teaching is becoming less and less the gateway to modern society but the crowd of diploma-holders, graduates included, standing at that gateway is constantly increasing. Many families have made what are sometimes great sacrifices to have their children educated. Those without large incomes are now wondering whether there is any point if all they are doing is swelling the dole queue or turning out youngsters whose only prospects are jobs in the informal sector which bear little relation to the training they have received.

Is this an ordinary growth crisis? Is it wrong to expect the efforts ploughed into education to bring rapid results? Won’t they bear fruit in the longer term, once further progress has been made with school attendance levels? If so, then the efforts must be pursued.

Or is it a more structural crisis? Have the efforts been misguided? If so, the education systems will have to be rethought, perhaps radically.

Education systems too expensive and unsuitable

There has been no shortage of criticism of African education, particularly higher education, over the past few years. The complaints are, by and large, that the systems turn out too many graduates with doubtful qualifications of even more doubtful use and that they do so at a high cost that is beyond the means of the national economies. A common question is whether it is reasonable for most African states to spend around 20% of their education budgets on higher education courses attended by less than 1% of the student population. Might it not be more efficient to allocate resources differently?

Some observers say the African education crisis is only just beginning. The effect of the obvious decline in the standards of basic schooling in most of the countries over the past few years will be felt by youngsters embarking on higher education tomorrow, bringing about a decline in standards at that level, too.

Africa seems to be in a web of contradictions:

· It has a problem of financial resources. The states do not have the means to plough any more into their systems of education and they have the twin problem of the quantity (only a fraction of any age group is involved in education) and quality of the teaching provided. The answer to this is to increase resources. In the main, higher education budgets go on teachers’ salaries and student grants, leaving establishments with very little to buy and operate equipment: an increase in the latter is needed if standards are to improve.

· It trains technicians and teams who are suitable for modern, high-productivity economies but quite out of keeping with low-productivity economies where the informal sector is constantly gaining ground. Typical examples are the agronomists who fail to find a niche in low output agricultural systems. Their skills are unused, while dependence on imported foods increases all the time and Africa loses shares in world markets to South-East Asia.

The World Bank was no doubt right in its report on prospects in sub-Saharan Africa (published in 1989) to say that “radical measures” were called for, to raise the standard of education, lower the cost per student and per graduate, keep down numbers in disciplines which did not make for economic development and lighten the State’s load by obtaining a bigger contribution from recipients and their families. But will such radical measures remove the contradictions? And are African societies ready to accept this new aspect of structural adjustment?

Perhaps it would be a good idea first to try to understand the part played by the education systems set up by the colonial powers and considerably developed by the independent states and to see how this has differed from what has been done in other parts of the world.

A problem of society

It may be helpful to start by pointing out that economic growth in the industrialised world was the result of a host of minor improvements in productivity built up over decades. In the early days of the industrial revolution, education made but a small contribution to these improvements and innovations stemmed more from improvisation than from design. But there was at the same time a by no means fortuitous correlation between those parts of Europe with the highest literacy rates and those where the industrial revolution first emerged and spread.

In later stages, education systems provided people with a training which encompassed the advances in knowledge and know-how, making it possible to build economies in which techniques were increasingly complex and efficient, and paving the way for further improvements in productivity. Observers who have now been looking at the tie-up between education and the economy in most of the industrialised countries for more than a century have regularly complained about the discrepancy between the products of one and the needs of the other. But the gap has not, apparently, been unduly wide, as the economies have more or less continued to expand, irrespective of any shortcomings in the education systems. Education systems are the offspring of their own societies. They resemble them, reproduce at least in part their dis-functions and contradictions, and are involved in their movement, contributing to a greater or lesser extent to social change.

Some of the customers of the education system, higher education especially, are moved by a desire for greater culture while many others seek social promotion and a better income. The “ invisible hand “ described by Adam Smith has ensured that all these individual efforts have together resulted in the level of development we see today.

But matters were somewhat different in sub-Saharan Africa. During the colonial era, the elites were educated in Western systems. Members of such elites owed much of their personal success to their passage through such systems and it is easy to see why they placed priority on providing the next generation with a carbon copy of something which had served them so well. It is also easy to see why, after independence, priority was given, de facto, to creating education systems, and particularly higher education systems, along French or British lines.

It was not that there was a gap between education and society. There was an abyss - an immense abyss - between the education system borrowed from Europe and the long isolated, highly structured societies based on other values and ways of life which colonisation had barely begun to dismantle. It was greater, certainly, than in most of the Asian societies, whose history was different.

This education system produced scientists, technicians, economists etc., some of them properly trained and others less so, but in either case, trained for a Western-style economy geared to sustained development.

For a time, perhaps in the sixties and early part of the seventies, it might have seemed that such expectations were justified. Africa created authorities, banks and industries which opened their doors to the young professionals which the system produced. The movement appeared to be self-sustaining, calling for and employing the increasing numbers arriving on the job market. And it would have been reasonable to think that the very existence of more and more professionals trained to cater for the needs of the modern society would help sustain economic growth.

But this is not what happened. In the seventies, growth slowed in most countries and, in the eighties, the superficially modern societies of sub-Saharan Africa declined and in some cases collapsed altogether. Informal activity flourished in every sector - in trade, transport and crafts and even in small industries and banking. There was a burgeoning of initiative outside the formal framework and of low-productivity activities in general. Some of this work was survival activity and could not really have been formal, but others easily could have been and it was the people involved who deliberately decided to stay outside the existing framework. So now it is the informal sector which largely dominates employment in the townships of Africa.

These unforeseen developments meant that the education system was to some extent marginalised. The abyss between society and education prevented Adam Smith’s “ invisible “ hand from playing its part. Not only has the education system failed to lead African societies to economic growth. It is also increasingly divorced from social needs which have not developed towards the Western model.

What education for development?

Education systems cannot be reformed in Africa today without casting doubt on the plans African societies have made for themselves.

Over the past three decades, Africa has sought to build a modern society without really having the means to do so - i.e. without increased human productivity or at least without a sufficient increase. Its main aim has been to have the right image, to have the trappings of a modern society, with factories, infrastructure and public services, serviced by education systems which are more symbolic than practical as a means of boosting productivity. It has financed this with agricultural and mining income where it has existed, and foreign aid where it has not. The eighties provided ample proof that the seemingly soundest of incomes were fragile, that foreign aid was subject to fatigue and that neither was a basis for a modern society.

The real basis, whatever the type of society, can only be more efficient people - not just isolated individuals, but the vast majority of the population. The whole of the education system, from the basics through to higher study, has to be revised with this in mind, to bring it closer to society and to bridge the abyss which currently exists. And this means far more than just cutting costs or improving efficiency; indeed going as far as putting a great deal more emphasis on basic education and bringing it closer to the human communities for which it is intended.

Are the African elites ready to learn from the experience of the past three decades? Are they ready to undertake such reflection and question the types of society they have more or less implicitly formed over this period? Doubt has been cast on many things in sub-Saharan Africa in recent times, from the role of the state to the dogma of the single party. The projected reforms of education, higher education especially, have come up against particularly strong resistance - stronger than as regards other reforms provided for by the structural adjustment programmes. This is understandable since diplomas virtually legitimise the present ruling elites and their standard of living. It is easy to see why they are unwilling to abandon the system. And that is a key issue for the future of the subcontinent.