If Africa grows its universities cleverly, its economies will flourish

As degrees become more commonplace, African graduates are struggling more to find jobs. George Esiri/Reuters

The idea of “education for the masses” – rapidly increasing university enrolment rates – has changed the face of higher education in the past 50 years. The term “massification” has been adopted to describe it.

Universities in the US, Britain, Russia, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea lead the pack when it comes to opening their doors to more students.

These countries’ institutions also perform well by any measure of research and postgraduate output. They have shown that, over time, there’s no conflict between dramatically increasing access to university education and the quality of this tertiary education.

Africa’s universities are also growing rapidly. In 1999, there were around 3.53 million students on the continent. By 2012, that figure had trebled to 9.54 million. However, they must learn from more developed nations' successes and failures to ensure that their massification is not just haphazard.

Massification needs policy, planning and funding. It must be done with a keen eye on a country’s economic needs. Otherwise, increasing graduate numbers will simply translate into increasing graduate unemployment.

Graduate unemployment around the globe

There are some 150.6 million tertiary students globally. That’s roughly a 53% increase from 2000. Degrees are becoming more commonplace and job markets around the world are seeing a glut of graduates. There simply aren’t enough jobs for all of them.

This is true on all continents and is related to several factors: a mismatch between graduates' skills and labour market demands; an oversupply of graduates for certain fields, and structural policies. Recent studies have found that between 40% and 50% of US college graduates are overqualified for the work they’re doing.

The situation is similar in Britain, where underemployment among graduates rose from 37% in 2001 to 47% in June 2013.

Graduate unemployment plagues Africa too.

But the continent should not use this as an excuse to bring massification to a halt. Given Africa’s growth trajectory, it needs skilled graduates. To meet this need, universities must open their doors to more students. But they must do so armed with knowledge, lessons from elsewhere and strong funding models.

A regional focus

Funding models from other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries provide some useful guidelines. Studying these will allow African universities to understand more about how to successfully pursue massification. Political will, government investment and a proper understanding of what sorts of graduates a country needs are all crucial.

The US’s experiences with massification hold many lessons for African universities.

The massification of higher education must be linked to regional socioeconomic development strategies. Universities need to respond to their regions' specific needs.

For instance, Ethiopia is focusing on two major economic initiatives: the development of hydroelectric power and the development of an agricultural sector that provides food security.

The initiatives are in their infancy. But Ethiopia is already starting to integrate infrastructure projects with research and skills development. Its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was a site for scientific research and innovation as well as students' skill development.

A similar model was used for South Korea’s high-speed railway system. The project spawned major innovations and bolstered local engineering skills.

These examples show that large national projects can be run in tandem with universities and other research institutes.

Alignment is key

University systems must also align with local industries. One of the most striking is in Rochester, New York led by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York. It is a public-private partnership with a clear mandate to create new jobs and innovative products.

This creates a symbiotic partnership in which both academics and students get practical, relevant exposure. Such partnerships also give universities the chance to share laboratories and cutting edge research facilities with both industry and government.

This should feed both research and industry needs. Simultaneously, it can drive the creation of new industries. It can also encourage commercialisation and entrepreneurship. A university that specialises in agriculture or has a strong faculty of agriculture should be using its expertise to develop commercial projects.

For instance, Kenya is a major tea producer. Since the 1980s the country has run the Tea Research Institute. It taps into an available commodity and produces research which harnesses that commodity’s potential.

When such initiatives are properly organised students can move between classrooms and, for instance, solving concrete agricultural problems. They then gain skills and new insights. And the products that spring from their ideas can generate more funding for their institutions.

This sort of thinking will lead to the development of robust national innovation systems. These systems coherently organise the research and development initiatives of private industry, public research institutions and universities. This makes it easier for research to feed into national development.

If Africa’s universities can get this right, their quality and competitiveness will improve. They’ll be in a position to add value to industry and economic development more broadly – an attractive proposition for the private sector, which will then be more willing to pour funding into universities.

And, as students and professors become part of this collaborative system, the private sector is more likely to develop a seamless capacity for absorbing graduates. If the market is absorbing graduates, the value of a country’s degrees goes up.

The Asian example

This is not pie in the sky thinking. It has precedents in Asian countries like South Korea, Singapore, China and Malaysia, among others. There universities have been able to expand enrolments while simultaneously developing partnerships between industry and themselves.

China is considered a latecomer in university massification. In 1988, there were 0.67 million available places at China’s universities and colleges. By 2012, this had climbed to 6.89 million.

Until now its graduate unemployment rate has remained very high. But the country has in the past few years adopted a policy of aligning its graduates' skills to the emerging knowledge economy. It has realised a key lesson of massification: universities cannot be divorced from local, provincial and national economic development plans if they want their graduates to be employed.

Africa must apply this lessons to drive rapid and sustainable economic development.

The way forward

Africa’s universities need to take massification seriously. But they must also be aware of their own – and their countries’ – specific limitations.

A high-quality university education system must be realistic and appropriate to a nation’s stage of economic, technological and industrial development. A high-quality university is not simply a replica of one in the Western world. It must be grounded fully in addressing the local population’s tangible needs before it chases global prestige.

Africa’s universities need to start growing and developing in two dimensions: horizontally, in terms of reaching out to enrol more and more students; and vertically, in terms of total quality management.

If it is strategically managed, massification won’t just benefit individual universities and students. It will improve daily life for all those living on the continent.

The Conversation

Dr Emmanuel Ojo receives funding from National Research Foundation (NRF).

Sandile Swana does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.