Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa
* Collect data
The Royal Academy of Engineering published in 2006 a pilot study on engineering capacity in Africa that contains no numbers at all and concludes that “...engineering capacity in Africa is not currently measured.” No sensible policy can be undertaken without data. Current data needs include: degrees awarded in engineering and technical fields, graduate program enrollment, tuition and fee costs, dropout rates, student loan numbers and amounts, employment of graduates, creation of locally owned startups, local professionals or companies employed on international aid projects, and losses of graduates to emigration (See link: Facts and Figures).
In an attempt to raise needed revenues, many public African universities have recently begun charging students some part of the cost of their education. Most students surveyed now report prohibitively expensive tuition and fees even at public universities, up to several times mean national income (the equivalent of over $100,000/year in the U.S.) Only a few countries in Africa (e.g. South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania) have significant student loan programs; only one student surveyed reported receiving a loan for college. Without student loans, university education becomes restricted to the wealthiest. Africa can afford neither this inequity nor the loss of so much potential. International donors can help either with technical advice to governments or with a program to underwrite loans: a Sallie Mae for Africa (see links: Student Loans and Economics of Higher Education).* Keep the brain drain from being a money drain
Education budgets in many African countries are further stretched because so many graduates emigrate: over 10% of African graduates overall and a much higher fraction in the medical and technical fields (e.g. 90% of all Zambian doctors trained in the last 30 years). Emigration represents a loss of roughly $1 billion a year in educational spending by governments in sub-Saharan Africa (twice as much as the U.S. gives in development aid). Simple policy changes by the U.S. and Europe can return this money to African universities. The simplest mechanism is to require employers to reimburse the educational costs of any African emigre hired, either by assuming student loan obligations or, for publicly-funded students, by paying an “education fee” to the relevant university system (see link: Brain & Money Drain).* Build and support graduate and engineering programs
Students surveyed universally stated the need for more research-based PhD programs within Africa or for funding to allow them to attend international programs. Many students, despite being among the brightest at their universities, also reported being unable to enroll in engineering programs because of lack of places. More capacity is needed. Proposals have been floated to build a series of African Institutes of Science and Technology modeled on the Indian Institutes of Technology, and some work has begun, but no large-scale funding exists. International donors can provide funding, or can work with individual countries to provide partnerships with universities to provide advice, equipment, student exchanges, and visiting lecturers. (see links: Teaching, Training, & Research and African Inst. of Sci. and Tech. ).
All surveyed students, without exception, reported computing facilities and programming training as one of the largest needs of their universities. They also universally describe curricula that are overly theoretical, with little applied science. Textbooks are often outdated because new ones are unaffordable. All these needs can be met by providing computers and low-cost, high-capacity internet connectivity. Computing and internet together can provide up-to-date course materials at large cost savings. An upper-level math textbook costs $100; the same amount will now buy a laptop that can dowload hundreds of freely available textbooks (see link: Curriculum Resources). Efficient use of online material requires cost-effective internet access; currently African universities would pay ca. $3000/month for the same bandwidth that costs $30/month in the U.S. International donors can help with providing computers, with financing intra-African network infrastructure, and with construction of badly needed optical fiber links to Europe and Asia (see link: Internet Connectivity).* Provide access to research
Internet capacity cannot alone connect African universities to the international research community. At present, researchers in African universities cannot see nearly all modern scientific literature because it is held by private publishers. The cost of research access is a growing concern even for U.S. universities: MIT now pays over $4 million/year for access to science and engineering journals alone. Those costs are out of reach for the developing world. Open access can be ensured by legislation such as the U.S. Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (introduced in the 109th Congress), which would have required that all federally funded research be made available to the public. Alternatively, publishers can be pressured to open their archives to developing-nation universities (see link: Research Journal Access).* Promote faculty and student exchanges
Students at many universities reported shortages of professors, in part because so many have emigrated. The Central African Republic, for example, has only three math professors for a population of 4 million. Ethiopian students reported that their universities spent unaffordable sums hiring foreign lecturers. Teaching methods typically do not emphasize interaction, discussion or problem-solving. For these reasons students requested teaching exchange programs to allow African emigres or other researchers and professors to take short-term teaching appointments at African universities, especially in the applied sciences. Students also requested expanded programs to bring African trainees to the U.S. and Europe, offering PhD fellowships, postdocs, engineering internships, or professional training, with a requirement of return to the home country. International donors have offered both options; existing programs could be scaled up (see link: Teaching, Training, & Research).* Encourage African academics to return
Currently research budgets are minuscule in all African countries other than South Africa. Faculty salaries are also low: students in several countries reported professors moonlighting at second jobs out of financial necessity. For these reasons African scientists who leave the continent for training do not commonly return. International donors can help in many ways, including offering startup grants for foreign-trained African PhDs and postdocs to set up research programs at African universities (see link: Teaching, Training, & Research).
International aid should leave behind skills in Africa, not just concrete and steel. This goal is rarely put into practice. One student who had visited Chinese-funded infrastructure projects observed a complete absence of African employees: "even the guy who cleans the toilets is brought from China". The South African Institution of Civil Engineering reports a critical shortage of civil engineers in that country, because local engineering graduates need additional on-the-job training and South African engineering firms would rather hire expatriates than inexperienced junior engineers. International donors and African governments can increase technical skills transfer by requiring that any international aid project include training of local professional and technical staff (see link: Postgraduate Employment: Engineering).* Help graduates become entrepreneurs
University education translates to economic development in part because graduates found and run businesses. In the U.S., business founders have access to venture capital and outright government grants (e.g. the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program). Neither is available in Africa. For African graduate entreprenuers to create jobs and build their economies, they need similar opportunities. International donors can help either by setting up venture capital funds to invest in local businesses (that are considered too risky for investment by private equity firms) or by providing grants for startup companies. They can also take care that any aid projects support local businesses rather than supplant them (see link: Postgraduate Employment: Entrepreneurship).