Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Facts and Figures


African Universities

University links. Many African universities now maintain webpages, including some of the institutions attended by the surveyed students. Pictures, descriptions, and information about departments and programs at these universities can be found either through a country-sorted list (maintained by Stanford University) or a searchable database (a collaboration between Michigan State University and the Association of African Universities). Be warned, the low bandwidth of most African universities means that their websites are slow to load (see link: internet connectivity).

Library, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (photo from university website).

U. of Dar es Salaam, TZ

University information. General information on higher education in the different African countries can be found at the Boston College International Network for Higher Education in Africa (INHEA) website, offering country-by-country profiles. Further detail is in the project's useful book:

Teferra, Damtew and Philip G. Altbach, editors. "African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook". Indiana University Press, 2003.

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Educational statistics

Collected data and estimates. See here for a summary list of relevant data and estimates compiled on this website.

Basic data. The World Bank Education Statistics database (EDSTATS) is a comprehensive dataset on education throughout the world. Much of the information it contains was collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). The UIS also produces a useful annual report on education; see here for the Global Education Digest 2006 The Task Force on Higher Education and Society, convened by the World Bank and UNESCO, also presents some educational data in their report, though these numbers may be duplicates of those in EDSTATS.

Future data. The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) is promoting better collection of educational statistics, helping African countries develop reporting tools to gather information.


Reports and articles

State of higher education in Africa. The World Bank/UNESCO Task Force on Higher Education and Society produced a report on the state of higher education in developing countries throughout the world, decrying the lack of facilities and outmoded curricula. The report also concluded the investment in primary and secondary education had naturally fuelled demand for higher education as well. See this article or summary. A 2006 World Bank report describes higher education in Africa in particular. Many more reports can be found at the MSU/AAU Africa Higher Education Resource Directory, as well as information on partnerships with individual universities and donor actions.

Importance of science and engineering. In recent years, writers on development have begun emphasizing the importance of higher education to developing countries (e.g. this 2002 World Bank report, or this short article by the authors of the 2006 World Bank report). A number of these reports have focused on the importance of science and engineering training in particular. Africa cannot develop, the argument runs, if it has to continually import (and pay for) technical ability from the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The 2006 Hinton Lecture of the Royal Academy of Engineering argues for the importance of engineering to Africa.

State of science and engineering. If engineering and technology are important for development, it makes sense to understand how many engineers are being trained in Africa and how many local engineering firms exist. The Royal Academy of Engineering commissioned a pilot study on engineering capacity in Africa in 2006. The report concluded that data are currently absent: engineering capacity has not been measured. The World Federation of Engineering (WFOE) is reportedly beginning a more detailed study.


Graduation rates

Attrition in African universities. Because no agency compiles systematic data on university dropout rates across Africa, we must rely on student surveys and individual country studies. These suggest that dropout rates vary widely between countries.

Some students described steep attrition in their departments or universities: 85% loss from mathematics in Madgascar, more than 95% loss from mathematics in the Central African Republic, 75% in Niger, 60% in Uganda. These losses may not be fully representative, and some part of them may be due to students switching to less challenging fields (as happens in U.S. universities: first-year physics is held in auditoriums seating hundreds; fourth-year physics in small classrooms). Nevertheless they suggest high dropout rates in many countries.

These rates are not likely representative of the continent as a whole. A third of all sub-Saharan university students (1 million) are in Nigeria, the most populous African country and one with a 10% tertiary enrollment rate. Students from Nigeria describe dropout rates there as low: one estimated 5%, others wrote that rates were "low" or that "most students tend to graduate". The next-most significant sub-Saharan country for tertiary education is South Africa, with 500,000 students. South Africa has a 50% dropout rate (reported by the education minister Naledi Pandor in 2006). Ethiopia, the second-most populous African country, contributes another 150,000 tertiary students. Students from Ethiopia diverge in their opinions, with one describing "overwhelming" dropout rates but another writing "For Ethiopian students getting a chance to go to university is a golden chance. Once they get the chance no one wants to drop out unless it is a medical or academic case." A third Ethiopian student gives a 35% figure for his department.

It appears that in the three countries representing more than half of sub-Saharan university students, at least half of university students graduate. If we take the 35% figure for Ethiopia and assume a conservative 20% for Nigeria then the weighted average dropout rate for these countries becomes 30%. This relatively high graduation success for Nigeria/South Africa/Ethiopia means that the continental average dropout rates are better than the first examples cited would suggest. Even if all university students in all other sub-Saharan countries dropped out (obviously an unreasonable case), the average dropout rate would be close to 60%. A more reasonable (but still upper bound) estimate that 75% of students outside Nigeria/South Africa/Ethiopia leave without graduating gives an average sub-Saharan dropout rate of 50%.

Data collection on this subject is a clear priority for understanding higher education in Africa.

Comparison with developed-world universities. The dropout rate for tertiary students in the United States is 46% (from a 2006 study by William Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon foundation), comparable to our estimate for Africa. The mean dropout rate in the United Kingdom is 16% (reported by the BBC News, 2001). Dropout rates in 1999 were 28% in Germany and 45% in France (BBC News study).