MAKERERE UNIVERSITY’S position, on a hilltop commanding a panoramic view of Kampala, is fitting for a place some call the “Harvard of Africa”. By many measures, it is the continent’s best college outside South Africa.
But it was closed for two months from November by Uganda’s autocratic president, Yoweri Museveni, after a strike by lecturers over unpaid bonuses sparked student protests.
Founded by the British to train local colonial administrators, Makerere has a reputation for educating the powerful. Tanzania’s founding president, Julius Nyerere, studied there. So did Kenya’s third leader, Mwai Kibaki, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s current head of state, Joseph Kabila. The university went through a rough period between 1971 and 1979, when it felt compelled to make Idi Amin, a barely literate despot, its chancellor. Amin awarded himself a doctorate of law, despite neither studying much nor believing in the rule of law. But those dark days are past. Makerere’s researchers are now some of Africa’s most prolific, creating everything from low-cost sanitary pads to an electric car. Nonetheless the institution’s problems—too many students and too little money—are all too common across the continent.
Makerere has more than doubled enrolment to nearly 40,000 in the past two decades. As government scholarships, most of them allocated by merit rather than need, have become scarcer, and strike-happy lecturers have demanded ever-higher wages (even though academics at public universities are some of Uganda’s best-paid workers), the university has tried to close the funding gap by admitting more fee-payers. But in real terms it spends almost a quarter less now than in 2007, even though the number of students has risen by 12% over the same period.
Similar pressures are felt across sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the poorer countries. (South Africa’s university system is more advanced but faces other difficulties, including demands by militant students that fees be abolished altogether.) A World Bank study of 23 poorer African states found that enrolments at public and private universities had quadrupled between 1991 and 2006, while public spending on them rose by just 73%.
Opening new public institutions to meet growing demand has not been problem-free, either. In 2000 Ethiopia had two public universities; by 2015 it had 29. “These are not universities, they’re shells,” says Paul O’Keefe, a researcher who has interviewed many Ethiopian academics, and heard stories of overcrowded classrooms, lecturers who have nothing more than undergraduate degrees themselves and government spies on campus.
In those countries where higher education was liberalised after the cold war, private universities and colleges, often religious, have sprung up. Between 1990 and 2007 their number soared from 24 to more than 460 (the number of public universities meanwhile doubled to 200). But they often find themselves tied up in red tape. Gossy Ukanwoke tried to establish Nigeria’s first online-only university in 2012, but was forced by the government to acquire a campus. Beni American University has 450 executive-education students on-site, and has taught 8,200 online in the past two years. But it has struggled to attract investment to finish the facilities it needs before it can teach undergraduates.
Many of these new institutions churn out cheaply taught business degrees. But some others are giving the better public institutions a run for their money. Kenya’s Daystar University is renowned for its communications courses (it also offers what it claims to be “the world’s first smartphone-based degree programme for teachers”). Strathmore, another private Nairobi university, focuses on specific areas, including intellectual-property law, disaster management and how to start a business.
And some public institutions are upping their game. Internships are now mandatory at Uganda’s public universities. The University of Nairobi’s Fab Lab, part of a global initiative that provides access to machinery and online courses in how to use it, has spawned a number of startups. Open-source hardware has helped, says Kamau Gachigi, who runs the lab. He cites AB3D, which makes 3D printers based on free designs posted online by Adrian Bowyer, formerly of the University of Bath in Britain. Open-source software and websites such as Sci-Hub that make pricey academic journals free to read (albeit illegally in most jurisdictions), also help cash-strapped universities improve teaching and research. But even these welcome developments will not go far if African universities continue to admit more students than they can cope with.
Africa needs more well-educated young people. But many of its young graduates have gained little more from their time at university than raised expectations. Swelling classes and stale courses mean they are generally ill-prepared for the few graduate jobs on offer. Young sub-Saharan Africans with degrees are three times as likely to be unemployed as their primary-school-educated peers, who are mostly absorbed by the informal sector.
Donors willing to fund universities in Africa, rather than scholarships for African students to attend European and American universities, might improve local institutions—and help pay for expansion. The World Bank is planning to spend $290m by 2019 on 22 “centres of excellence” in areas such as climate change and poultry science, in seven west and central African countries. Other donors and African governments would do well to follow, and tie funding to teaching and research quality, rather than to student numbers.
This story appeared on The Economist with the headline: African universities recruit too many students