Opportunities in African Education: A Brief Glance at the Data

We can only get our continent to have inclusive growth if we are educated and change our   mindsets — Doreen E. Noni, World Economic Forum, 2014

It doesn’t take a great deal of macroeconomic digging to understand the profound development opportunities that are emerging across Africa, which by 2013 was receiving $57 billion in foreign direct investment or more than double the $26.2 billion in foreign aid funneled to sub-Saharan Africa from OECD countries. But without profound changes in the way education is accessed, delivered and made affordable, many of Africa’s economic accomplishments will remain narrow, unsustainable and socially divisive.  

In a recent article I discussed some of the low-cost alternatives to African education and the potential role for education technology.  Beyond this, there are also profound pressures on putting the continent’s rapidly growing youth population to work as well as expanding the supply of available education and training.

Figure A provides some basic comparative data aggregated across Africa, Asia and Latin America–three of the world’s largest development markets (statistically we are referring here to sub-Saharan Africa).  What is most striking is Africa’s severe gap in higher education in the face of a youth bulge, and the increasing number of students that are looking elsewhere in the world to fulfill their higher learning needs.  

To understand this context, consider five brief observations. 

Figure A: Education Demographics Across Three Continents: Africa, Asia and Latin America

First, Africa’s aged 15-19 population is expected to reach 151.1 million by 2030, which is three times the size of the same demographic in Latin America and virtually equal to Asia, according to UNCTAD projections. This age bracket is both an important indicator of potential college-bound or vocational students and generally the future funnel for the workforce, and Africa will lead the world in it, with an estimated 43 per cent of its total population under the age of 15.

Second, while workforce pressures may not be as severe for governments in Asia to handle, Africa had only 6.3 million students enrolled in tertiary education in 2012 compared to 97.6 million in Asia and 22.8 million in Latin America–a massive gap to close, particularly when considering Africa’s rapidly expanding population.  Looked at another way, the ratio of incoming secondary to tertiary students is 7.7x for Africa against a much lower 3.2x and 2.7x for Asia and Latin America.

Third, affordability is challenging across the education cycle and in every African country.  Current estimated Sub-Saharan Africa GDP on a PPP basis is $2,546 or less than half of Asia and a third of Latin America at $10,872.  Moreover, since African countries represent the 8 of the world’s top 10 countries in family income inequality as measured by the Gini index the actual purchasing power of individual African students is undoubtedly lower than the headline statistical figure represents. How to deliver quality higher education with limited family and government funds, and without an adequate supply of universities on the ground, now begs for immediate solutions.

Fourth, African students, to the extent they can afford it or gain assistance, are voting with their feet with approximately 288,198 students going abroad by 2012, a level far exceeding Latin America. For American universities, it is interesting to note that only 31,114 African students were enrolled in US universities in 2014 (3.5% of total international students in the US) compared with much higher levels from Asia (1.47 million students or 64.2%) and slightly higher levels in Latin America (72,318 students or 8.2%).   

Fifth, Africa is only beginning to internationalize its higher education system.  Currently there are only 10 international branch campuses in African countries compared to 88 in Asia and 15 in Latin America. Despite Africa’s utter lack of higher education supply and quality to match future demand, the education world has yet to respond in full measure.


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