I’ve been dealing a lot with issues of access in Africa (specifically, Senegal and Uganda) over the past couple of months. And I think I’m coming to the conclusion that there are some situations where it flat-out doesn’t make any sense to expand access.
If you’re a producer of good and services, the main advantage of poor countries is that labour is cheap. This is why manufacturing has, over the years, drifted to lower-wage countries – first Mexico, then China, and so on. But universities don’t work that way. Academics are significantly more mobile than other workers; If university pay falls behind in Ghana they’ll move to Nigeria or South Africa; if it falls behind in South Africa, they’ll move to the UK or Australia. So to keep them, salaries have to be well above local norms. Scientific equipment is sold at a global price, as are journals and periodicals (price reduction schemes do exist for Africa, but universities in places like the Balkans or the ‘Stans are pretty much out of luck on that), which is a huge burden for poorer countries.
As a result, the price differential between rich countries and poor countries for producing university graduates is substantially less than it is for producing widgets. You can see this most easily if you express countries’ expenditures per student on higher education as a fraction of GDP/capita. In advanced OECD countries, that number is usually in the region of 30%; in Africa, it is frequently over 100% (and even with that disparity, it’s not even close to buying a similar end-product). It’s quite simply enormously expensive for governments in this situation to expand higher education.
The natural instinct of higher education policy wonks in this situation is always the same: pile on more resources. If government can’t afford it, let fee-paying students (either in public or private universities) make up the difference. And that works, up to a point. But you still run up against the same problem: the cost structures of those institutions aren’t that different from those of public universities, and the troubles the government has in raising money for public services is mirrored by the troubles individuals have in finding well-paying jobs to pay for that education.
Student loans are sometimes mooted as a solution to the problem, but the repayment problems are enormous. In Africa, for instance, it’s fairly typical that the cost of a year of study is equal to about 40-50% of an entry-level salary. That means that even if a graduate does find a job right away, their outstanding debt will be on the order of 150%-200% of their income. Not sustainable.
This isn’t a question of public vs. private. It is simply a question of return on investment. At certain levels of development, there are points beyond which you either have to radically reduce the cost of higher education (perhaps via intensive use of MOOCs, as the Kepler project in Rwanda is doing), or you have to say “enough is enough”, because the return isn’t there. It’s politically difficult to do, but as with any good, one needs to acknowledge when marginal costs start exceeding marginal benefits. This may be one of those cases.