The untold story of how Africa’s flagship universities have advanced

Africa’s flagship universities have a great deal to offer as the continent continues to grow and develop. Shutterstock

Africa has the lowest university enrolment rates in the world. In the past two decades, though, virtually all the continent’s higher education systems have recorded massive growth.

The spike in enrolments started in the late 1990s. It was driven partly by the liberalisation of the global economy. People also started becoming more aware of the critical role that higher education plays in development. Other contributing factors included institutional and national policies, improved access and funding. There were also international imperatives like favourable global higher education policies.

The continent’s higher education system is only superficially covered in the popular media. Much of what has been written about Africa’s universities – and particularly its flagship institutions – focuses only on their shortcomings and the challenges they face.

I have spent the past two years working with a team of researchers to collect data with a view to analysing higher education institutions in Africa. We used 11 leading universities as case studies and focused particularly on their contributions.

The study analysed and documented the institutions’ contributions in teaching, learning, graduates and research productivity. It revealed that flagship universities have made huge contributions to capacity building and skills development in the decades following Africa’s independence. This remains true right up to the present.

The findings suggest that they have plenty more to offer. This includes millions of graduates who will make a contribution to the continent’s future growth and development.

What makes a flagship university

Africa’s flagship universities are those which were established in the lead up to and just after independence during the 1960s. Their age, size and reputation mean they’re considered their respective countries’ leading institutions.

Our research – which we expect to publish in a book with the working title of Flagship Universities in Africa: Role, impact and trajectory – found that these universities still play a critical role in national capacity-building and innovation efforts today.

Given their age, capacity and reputation, flagship universities also tend to be the most internationalised and advanced when it comes to institutional co-operation. This is important in a higher education sector that’s continuously globalising. Their reputation extends to the calibre of their alumni, among whom are Nobel laureates, heads of state, ministers, acclaimed authors, judges, economists and actors.

The flagship universities in this study are in Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Tracking a growth pattern

I identified four patterns of growth by studying these universities’ available enrolment data from 2000 to 2015. These are:

  • exponential expansion;

  • major expansion;

  • sizeable expansion; and

  • stabilisation.

The universities of Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana and Nairobi recorded three-to-four-fold growth in 15 years. This can be considered exponential expansion. The universities of Cheikh Anta Diop, Mauritius and Zambia saw major expansion of two or more-fold growth.

Makerere University and the University of Botswana displayed sizeable expansion of more than 50%. The universities of Ibadan in Nigeria and Cairo in Egypt, meanwhile, showed signs of stabilisation with fluctuating growth in both the positive and negative territories.

Why tracking a growth pattern is difficult

There are several factors that make it difficult to categorise growth and to develop a watertight pattern. For instance, some constituent members of flagship universities have broken up into independent, fully fledged new institutions. This is a common phenomenon in Africa.

University mergers are the flip-side of this trend. The University of Rwanda, which was not part of the study, is one flagship that has brought several institutions together under one roof.

Student and labour strikes, which are fairly common at African universities, are also a problem. Any disruptions to the academic year make it difficult to accurately document enrolment trends or other variables.

The way that enrolment is counted compounds the challenge. African universities’ data collection tends to be poorly developed and managed, even in this electronic age. Data must be cobbled together from different sources based on varied assumptions. This has obvious implications for tracking a growth pattern.

Despite these stumbling blocks, it was possible to identify some remarkable milestones.

Graduates: the good news

The numbers extrapolated from this study show that flagship universities have contributed hugely to the training and development of skilled graduates since their inception.

Several universities in the study, among them Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Ghana and Nairobi, have recorded an estimated 100,000 graduates each since they opened. These figures are actually rather conservative given the problems outlined above. In some cases, such as at Makerere, only figures for the last 12 years are available.

Cairo University alone has registered more than 500,000 graduates in just the last 20 years. If you remove it from consideration, ten flagship universities in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for producing just less than one million graduates since they were opened.

On the basis of raw data from the study, it is projected that the total number of graduates from universities in sub-Saharan Africa that may be designated as flagship now stands between 2.5 and three million.

Flagships must be nurtured

Africa’s higher education sector is expanding rapidly. New public and private institutions crop up all the time and are flourishing.

Even amid these changes, flagship universities remain their countries’ academic flag bearers. They are critical institutions. They must be strategically positioned to build national capacity and to advance African universities’ global competitiveness.

This article is based on one which originally appeared on University World News.