Need to keep quality even as varsities expand

The last twenty years or so have seen a huge expansion in higher education across Africa. More universities, both public and private, and offering more courses, have been established. Student enrolment is at an all time high. This is certainly true in Rwanda.

The last twenty years or so have seen a huge expansion in higher education across Africa. More universities, both public and private, and offering more courses, have been established. Student enrolment is at an all time high. This is certainly true in Rwanda.

There are obviously good reasons for this phenomenal expansion. However, not everyone understands the reasons the same way.

The Economist, for instance, published an article last week saying that cash-strapped universities in Africa increase enrolment in order to raise funds to run the institutions. It goes further to say that, as a result, they teach low skills courses that are less expensive to run but that have little alignment with market demands.

This is true but only partially.

It is true that public universities in Africa depend on government funding for a huge part of their operations – teaching and research, infrastructure development, scholastic materials, students’ welfare and salaries for faculty and staff. A smaller fraction is funded by grants from donors. Over time governments’ contribution has had to be spread across the many universities, resulting in an increasingly reduced share for each.

In parts of East Africa, inadequate financing has led to unpleasant scenes at university campuses. Academic staff at universities in Kenya and Uganda routinely go on strike over pay. This week it was reported that the University of Rwanda has been unable to pay its open learning tutors (The East African April 22-28 2017).

Private universities rely entirely on students’ tuition fees for the same operations. Although no strikes by academic staff have been reported, it is perhaps because most of them are part time teachers whose day jobs are at public universities.

In the more developed countries, financing of higher education comes from a variety of sources. Endowments from wealthy individuals and philanthropic organisations, corporations and foundations, and partnership with industry are very important sources.

To cope with declining public funding and in the absence of any other source of financing, universities have had to find ways of raising revenue. The easiest but most unpopular option is to raise tuition fees. Another is to increase the number of privately sponsored students. In many instances, new degree courses have been created, often by breaking up existing courses into smaller components to attract more students.

This is what Professor Mahmood Mamdani has called in his book, Scholars in the Marketplace. Inevitably it leads to a host of other problems, including declining standards.

As noted earlier, university expansion as a funding solution is only part of the story of the growth of higher education in Africa. There are other elements to the story.

Expansion was an inevitable response to the liberalisation of higher education and addressed a specific public demand. For a long time university education was accessible to only a few and the only avenue to a good life. The rush that came with liberalisation is therefore perfectly understandable. Everyone wanted to be among the elite and have a place at the high table.

The situation in Rwanda was slightly different. Admission to university was tightly controlled in addition to being discriminatory. Removal of those restrictions opened the floodgates to universities and those who had been denied entry enrolled in large numbers.

Employers, especially government which is the largest employer, put a premium on certificates and diplomas. This also explains the rush to obtain them, even if the acquisition of knowledge was only secondary.

But is it all doom and gloom as The Economist article seems to suggest? Not exactly. In East Africa, institutions charged with regulating higher education are tackling the challenges of quality associated with rapid expansion and funding shortfalls.

The merger of public universities in Rwanda into the University of Rwanda must be seen in this light.

Makerere University in Uganda has been merging courses and has cut them by nearly a half, from 450 to 253.

In Kenya, there is an ongoing review of academic programmes to align them with the development agenda and market demands.

Where universities do not meet the quality standards set by the respective regulatory agencies, they have been ordered to close until they meet those requirements. The recent suspension of operations of some private universities in Rwanda by the Higher Education Council was done in this spirit.

At the end of last year, the Commission for University Education in Kenya ordered eleven university campuses of three public universities closed for offering sub-standard education.

In both the Kenyan and Rwandan cases, the institutions were faulted for inadequate teaching staff, lack of the appropriate learning facilities and for offering programmes not approved by the regulator.

There is no doubt there are issues of quality in higher education, but in a rapidly expanding sector they can be expected as the pains of growth. They should not, however, be allowed to become the norm. That’s why it is reassuring that the various regulators are prepared to crack the whip to make sure that quality is not compromised.

 

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