Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: African PSE

February 10

Four Megatrends in International Higher Education – Demographics

Last week I noted that one of the big factors in international education was the big increase in enrolments around the world, particularly in developing countries.  Part of that big increase had to do with a significant increase in the number of youth around the world who were of “normal” age for higher education – that is, between about 20 and 24.  Between 2000 and 2010, that age-cohort grew by almost 20%, from a little over 500 million to a little over 600 million.  Nearly all (95%) of that growth came from Asia and Africa.

Figure 1: Number of People Aged 20-24, by Continent, 2000 to 2030


But as figure 1 shows, 2010 was a peak year for the 20-24 age group.  Over the course of the 2010s, numbers globally will decline by 10%, and not reach 2010 levels again until 2030 (intriguingly, this is almost exactly true for Canada, as well).  A problem for international higher education?  Well, maybe.  Demography isn’t destiny.  But to get a bit more insight, let’s look at what’s happening to the demographics within each region.

In Europe, the numbers for the 20-24 year old group are falling drastically.  In Western Europe, the decline is relatively moderate and reflects a gradual drop in the birth rate which has been going on for about fifty years.  In Eastern Europe, the fall is more precipitous, a reflection the fall in the birth rate during the occasionally catastrophic years of the switch from socialism to capitalism.  In Russia, youth numbers are set to drop by – ready for this? – fifty per cent (or six million people) between 2010 and 2020.

Figure 2: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Europe, 2000 to 2030


In East Asia, the story of the first ten years of the century was the huge increase in youth numbers in China (yes, the one-child rule was in effect, but the previous generation was so large that raw numbers continued to increase anyway).  But once we reach 2010, the process reverses itself.  China’s youth cohort drops by 40% between 2010 and 2020. Similarly, Vietnam’s drops by 20%, as does Japan’s (which additionally lost another 20% between 2000 and 2010).  Of the countries in the region, only Indonesia is still seeing some gentle growth.

Figure 3:  Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in East Asia, 2000 to 2030


The story changes as we head west in Asia.  India will continue to see rises – albeit small ones – in the number of youth through to 2030 at least.  Pakistan will see an increase of 50%, albeit from a much smaller base.  Numbers in Bangladesh will rise fractionally, while those in Turkey will stay constant.  Iran, however, is heading in the other direction; there, because of the precipitous fall in the birth rate in the 1990s, youth numbers will fall by 40% between 2010 and 2020 (i.e. on a similar scale to China) before recovering slightly by 2030.

Figure 4: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Southern & Western Asia, 2000 to 2030


I’m going to skip the Americas, because numbers there stay pretty constant over the whole period and the graphs therefore look pretty boring (just a bunch of lines as flat as a Keanu Reeves performance).  But here comes Africa, where youth numbers are expanding relentlessly.

Figure 5: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Africa, 2000 to 2030


The six countries portrayed here – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania – make up just 40% of the continent’s population, but they are quite representative of the continent as a whole.  By 2030, there will be more 20-24 year-olds in Nigeria than there are in North America, and growth in numbers in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia (as well as Nigeria) between 2015 and 2030 will exceed 50%.  The outliers here are South Africa, where youth cohort numbers are going to stay more or less constant, and Egypt, where the numbers drop in the 2010s before starting to grow again in the 2020s.

So what can we learn from all this?  Well, what it means is that overall, youth numbers are shifting from richer and middle-income countries to poorer ones.  While many developed countries like the US, France, Canada and the UK are more or less holding their numbers constant (or, more often, showing a dip in the 2010s and a subsequent rise in the 2020s), we are seeing big, permanent drops in numbers in places like Russia, Iran, China and Vietnam and big increases in places like Nigeria, Pakistan and Kenya.

Ceteris paribus, this is bad news for international student flows because on average, the potential client base is going to be coming from poorer countries.  But keep in mind two things: first, international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway, so national average income may not be that big a deal.  Second, while the size of the base populations may be changing, what really matters for total numbers is the fraction of the total population which chooses to study abroad.  China is a good example here: as our data shows, the youth population is falling drastically but international student numbers are up because an increasing proportion of students are choosing to study abroad.

Bottom line: the world youth population is now more or less stable, after decades of growth.  For international education to continue to grow means finding ways to convince people further down the income strata that study abroad is a good investment.

September 23

Social License and Tuition Fees

So, to Johannesburg, where South African Education Minister (and Communist Party chief) Blade Nzimande finally announced the government’s decision on tuition for next year. He was in a tricky place: students are still demanding free tuition (see my previous story on the Fees Must Fall movement here) and will not accept a hike in fees. Meanwhile, universities are quite rightly feeling very stretched (it’s tough trying to maintain developed-world caliber institutions on a tax base which is only partially of the developed-world): with inflation running at around 6.5%, a fee freeze would amount to a substantial cut in real income.

So what did the minister do? He pulled an Ontario (or a Chile, or a Clinton, if you prefer). Tuition to rise, but students from families with income of R600,000 or less (roughly C$56,000, or US$43,000) would be exempt from paying the higher tuition. Who exactly was going to verify students’ income is a bit of a mystery since the cut-off for student financial aid in South Africa is considerably below R600,000 (a justified cause of further student complaint), but no matter. The basic idea was clear: the well-off will pay, the needy will not. The exact amount extra they would pay? That would be up to individual universities. They could set their own tuition but were strongly advised not to try increasing fees by more than 8%.

It took student unions less than five seconds to find this inadequate and to denounce the government. Several unions have threatened to boycott classes if their institution raised fees.

This raises an interesting question. Why, if students in Chile and Ontario are claiming victory (or partial victory at least) over their fee regimens, do South African students reject it? Well, context is everything. The key here is government legitimacy, or lack thereof.

Let’s take the Charest government in the Spring of 2012. The tuition fee increase that the government proposed was not excessive, and poorer students in fact might have been better off once tax credits were factored in. But absolutely no one paid the slightest bit of attention to the policy details. This was a government that had outstayed its welcome, and was badly tarred by corruption scandals (my favourite joke from that spring: what’s the difference between a student leader and a Montreal mafia boss? Only one of them has to forswear violence in order to get a meeting with the Minister of Education). It had a good, saleable plan, but literally no political capital on which to draw. The plan, as we all know, failed.

(By the by, this is why, if the Couillard government is going to move on tuition fees, it’s going to have to do it this year. Their window is closing.)

I could go down the list here. The big anti-tuition fee protests that got the President of South Korea to promise to reduce tuition in the spring of 2011? That was at the tail end of a profoundly unpopular Presidency (though to be fair in Korea it’s the rare presidency that doesn’t end in profound unpopularity). The Chilean tuition protests of 2011-2? Also at the end of an unpopular presidency. By contrast, the largest tuition fee increase in the history of the world – the increase announced for England in the fall of 2010 – was essentially met with only a single rally, in part because the measure was introduced by a brand-new government which led in the polls. Basically, you need “social license” in order to do something unpopular on tuition fees. Some governments have it, others don’t.

The South African government is in precisely this kind of legitimacy crisis right now. It is not a simple matter of President Zuma’s unpopularity, though his increasingly kleptocratic regime is profoundly unhelpful. It’s a bigger crisis of post-apartheid society. Formal racial equality exists, but equality in economic opportunity, equality in educational opportunity: those are still very far away and in many ways are not much better than they were 20 years ago. Today’s youth, born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, no longer feel much loyalty to the ANC as the leader of “the struggle”. They simply see the party as being incompetent, corrupt, and incapable of delivering a better and more equal society.

And it’s that anger, that rage, which is driving the #feesmustfall movement. I think there’s a real chance this won’t end well; there has already been a serious uptick in violence on South African campuses. South Africa’s universities, unfortunately, may end up as collateral damage in a larger fight for the country’s future.


June 07

Improving Higher Education in Africa Through Philanthropy

My reputation in Canadian higher education, for better or for worse, is that of being “the guy who knows what’s going on in other places”.  This credits me with a lot more knowledge than I actually have. But it does occasionally prompt people to ask me some interesting questions.  Recently, someone (hi, Krista!) asked me: so what would you say to someone who has a few million dollars to spend, and wanted to spend it on improving higher education for sub-Saharan Africans?

That’s a really good question.  So here’s my answer. 

What most people are inclined to do, as a first pass, is to create scholarships which allow promising African students to study abroad.  The Mastercard Foundation, for instance, did this as its first initiative.  But while this provides life-changing opportunities for the individuals selected, it does virtually nothing for the continent because by and large students who leave don’t come back.  Mastercard, to its credit, figured this out after a couple of years and changed tack.

So the next option is to try to find ways to fund African universities themselves.  One thing Mastercard now does is fund scholarships at selected high-quality African universities such as Ashesi University in Ghana or the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town.  This is a better idea than sending students abroad (it’s cheaper for one thing, so a given amount of money can help more people) and the institutions can use the income to improve their facilities and offerings.  That’s not bad.  But we can still do better.

Let’s start at the top.  African nations have collectively adopted a lot of high-sounding policies about Science, Technology and Innovation, but frankly the policy capacity of African governments to make this happen is pretty low.  If government capacity is the issue, it’s time to focus training on public servants, few of whom have a strong sense of how higher education and the private sector can and cannot support one another to support innovation.  Take 500 or so public servants from across African public sectors, run constant short-course training over three years through established African public policy institutes such as the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) or the Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI).  The cost of something like this could be in the low millions; the effects across the continent could be lasting and significant. 

Want something more ambitious?  Try expanding the models of higher education available in Africa.  There’s nothing like a good Canadian Polytechnic or north European “University of Applied Science” anywhere.  Someone should build and fund one for a decade or so – and spend big so that it’s something people want to emulate.

Not big enough yet?  Well, how about actually creating an African peer-reviewed research fund?  One of the problems with creating genuine African research flagships is that an enormous portion (in some cases as much as 90%) of their research budgets come from donors with specific research agendas.  The money is welcome, but shifting donors priorities make it difficult to develop an indigenous research capacity.  The World Bank’s decision to create a few dozen “African Centres of Excellence” is a step in the right direction, but it’s still in a sense “big science” – why not take the same approach and seed African science through thousands of small ($15-20,000) curiosity-based grants?  $100 million over five years could have a heck of an impact.

Or, finally, there’s the biggest challenge of all: re-designing the African university from the current model where all learning is assumed to happen in the presence of a teacher (and students therefore spend 35-30 hours in class per week), to a more North American model where students are expected to do more on their own and are therefore only required to spend 15 hours per week in class (I’ve written about this in more detail back here.  Quite simply, further massification is going to be impossible unless teaching gets less intense, but tradition and faculty interests make it difficult to see how this process will start.  But using philanthropic dollars to found a half-dozen universities to revolutionize the system?  Teach north-American style with a whole new, leaner production-function?  Now that would be a genuine game-changer, one that would open up enormous new possibilities for the entire continent.

March 18

The Cultural Aspect of “Affordability”

In tuition policy circles, there are a lot of “grass is greener” perspectives: that is, people arguing about affordability based on foreign examples of either high or low tuition.  But one of the problems with looking at “affordability” of higher education in cross-national contexts is that affordability is a matter of perspective.  What’s affordable in one country often isn’t in another.  I don’t mean this simply in the trivial sense that some countries are richer than others.  Obviously a $3,000 tuition fee is more affordable in Canada than it is in Zimbabwe.  Rather, I mean it in the sense that students and families in different countries with similar standards of living have different views about what kinds of sacrifices they are prepared to make in order to send their kids to school.

So here’s one example: East Africa.  There, you have four countries with fairly similar higher education systems.  Each has one obvious “flagship” institution, and a mix of private and public institutions.  The private sector teaches about a third of all students in Tanzania, and about half in Uganda and Rwanda; in Kenya, the figure is between 10 and 15%.  I can’t show you average fees in each country because they don’t exist, but here’s a selection of fees at each country’s flagship institution, in USD, at current exchange rates, which gives you a rough idea of the relative fee levels across the region.

Table 1: Tuition Fees at East African Flagship Universities, 2015-16, in USD






Now, let’s express those fees in terms of GDP/capita to get a sense of how “affordable” these fees are.  For comparison, tuition + compulsory fees in Canada are about 13% of GDP/capita.

Table 2: Tuition Fees at East African Flagship Universities, 2015-16, in USD (*Source: World Bank 2013)







Finally, let’s talk about availability of student assistance.  All four countries have student loan programs.  Uganda’s is very small – only a couple of thousand loans per year, starting in 2015 – while Tanzania’s is the largest, serving somewhere between a quarter and a third of all students.  The other two countries are in between, though Kenya’s system more resembles Tanzania’s, and Rwanda’s is closer to Uganda.

Now, based on all that, what do you think access rates look like?  Most people would probably put Tanzania (cheapest, best student aid) at the top, and Uganda (expensive, least available student aid) at the bottom.  But here’s what enrolment rates actually look like:

Figure 1: University Students per 100,000 of Population, East Africa, 2015 or Latest














A couple of caveats about the data.   Tanzania’s numbers are different from the others because nearly a quarter of its student body is enrolled at the country’s Open University, many of them in education programs.  Uganda’s numbers are somewhat lower because compared to the other countries, it has more tertiary students in non-university institutions.  But that aside, the real story is that Tanzania (richer, cheap tuition, better loan availability) is a lot closer to Uganda (poorer, more expensive, almost no loans) than it is to Kenya in terms of access rates.  And if you spend any time in the area, you’ll quickly learn something else: universities in Tanzania are far more likely than those elsewhere in the region to say they can’t expand without loans; the claim is that students simply won’t come if fees rise or loans aren’t expanded because “students can’t afford it”.  But on the face of it, that’s nonsense, as the costs for students elsewhere in the region are manifestly higher, and they are not thought to pose quite so severe a barrier.

The difference is entirely cultural, and has to do with collective saving mechanisms.  In Uganda, it is normal for a family to hit up their neighbours and co-workers for a few dollars each semester to help their kid get through school, which everyone does because they know that when it’s their turn to put a kid through school, the donation will be reciprocated.  In Tanzania, people will do the same to cover the cost of weddings or sometimes hospital fees, but not for tertiary education.  Locally, most people attribute this difference to the after-effects of the long period of socialism under President Julius Nyerere.  This view says that Tanzanians simply got used to government paying for everything, and citizens haven’t entirely adapted their thinking to the post-1990s reality.

I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it does beg some interesting policy questions: What’s the right policy to follow if a population has sub-optimal savings and investment habits?  Is there any practical  way to nudge a country from a Tanzania-ish state to a Ugandan one?  If not, are you stuck with permanently high tertiary education subsidies because households can’t be depended upon to contribute?

These are some serious questions, which have real implications here in Canada, too.  After all, wouldn’t Quebec universities be better off if Quebecers were a little more Ugandan and a little less Tanzanian?

Something to ponder, anyway.

January 22

Higher Education in Developing Countries is Getting Harder

Here’s the thing about universities in developing countries: they were designed for a past age.  In Latin America, the dominant model was that of Napoleon’s Universite de France – a single university for an entire country, which was all the rage among progressives for the first half of the nineteenth century.  In Africa (and parts of Asia), it was a colonial model – whatever the University of London was doing in the late 1950s, that’s basically what universities (the bigger ones, anyway) in Anglophone Africa are set up to do now.  We think of universities as being about teaching and research; by and large, in the global south, universities were about training future governing elite and transmitting ideology.

Of course, for a long time now, governments and foreign donors have been trying to nudge institutions in the direction of modernization.  By and large, the preference seems to be something like a 1990s Anglo/American model: market-focused for undergraduate studies, more of an emphasis of knowledge creation, etc.   This has been a tough shift, and not just because of the usual academic foot-dragging.

The problems are manifold.  If you want research, you need PhDs.  In much of Africa and Latin America, less than half of full-time academics have them.  And because only PhDs can give PhDs that’s a pretty serious bottleneck.  A few years ago, South Africa announced that it wanted to triple the number of PhDs in the country.  Great, said the universities.  Who’s going to train them?

And of course you need money, but that’s in exceedingly short supply.  Money for equipment, for instance (quick, how many electron microscopes are there in sub-Saharan African universities?  Take out South Africa, and I’m pretty sure the answer is zero).  But also money for materials, dissemination, conferences, etc.  In some African flagship universities, close to 80% of money for research comes from foreign donors.  That money is welcome, of course, but it means your research programs are totally at the whim of changing fads in international aid programs.

As for being market-focused: how does that work in countries where 80% of the formal economy is dominated by government and parastatals?  What’s even the point of building up a good reputation for graduating employable students when public sector HR managers aren’t allowed to discriminate between universities when hiring?

Now, making things worse are some fairly worrying macro-economic trends.  Not the commodities collapse, thought that doesn’t help.  No, it’s the secular change in the way development is actually happening; specifically, that countries are starting to de-industrialize at ever lower levels of manufacturing intensity (a phenomenon that economist Dani Rodrik explains very well here).  To put it bluntly, countries are no longer going to be able to get rich through export-driven manufacturing.  There aren’t going to be any more Taiwans or Koreas.  In future, if countries are going to get rich, it’s going to be through some kind of services and knowledge-intensive products.

This, to put it mildly, places enormous pressure on countries to have institutions that are knowledge-intensive and market-oriented.  When human capital trained for services industries become the only route for development, universities become vital to national success in a way they simply are not in a society that already has a major manufacturing base.  Simply put, no good universities, no development.  And that’s a world first because the developed world – including China – got rich before it got good universities.  It’s simply an unprecedented position for higher education anywhere.

But it’s a job for which these universities are simply not ready.  In Africa at least, even when the nature of the challenge is fully understood, universities are neither funded nor staffed adequately for the task; not only are their own internal cultures insufficiently entrepreneurial, but also they simply lack entrepreneurial partners with whom to work on knowledge and commercialization projects.

Getting a whole new set of challenges when you’ve barely got to grips with the old ones is a tall order. It’s a structural issue that international development and co-operation agencies need to think about, and invest in more than they currently do.

November 12

Explaining the #FeesMustFall Movement

One of the more interesting policy debacles in higher education this year has been the fracas over tuition fees in South Africa, which has led to what some are calling the biggest set of anti-government protests since the end of apartheid.  Here’s what you need to know:

The protests began when universities announced fee hikes for the coming year.  On average, the fee hikes were in the 6% range, which was relatively modest given a persistent inflation rate of just under 5%, and additional cost pressures due to a falling rand (the rand is 14 = 1 USD at the moment, up from 8 = 1 USD three years ago).   This kind of increase is not unusual in South Africa, but for a variety of reasons, this year the increases brought students out into the streets in very large numbers.

There were, near as I can tell, three factors at work.  The first is generalized discontent with the ANC government (animosity that is by no means restricted to students).  Though the party can still win over 50% of the vote in elections, a lot of that support is residual loyalty for its fight against apartheid rather than approval of current policies; and since today’s students were mostly born after Mandela was released from prison, they feel less loyalty to the party than do older South Africans.  Economic growth is fading (partly due to falling commodity prices, partly due to government incompetence, particularly on energy and power generation), which means no progress on persistently high unemployment among blacks.  And if there is one file where the government has underperformed the most over the past twenty years, it’s education.  The problem is worse in K-12 than  in universities (though colleges are a right mess), but the repeated failure to sufficiently increase expenditure in higher education is a persistent failure.

The second issue is with respect to student aid.  Though the government has massively increased outlays, it has also massively increased loan losses.  Up until about seven years ago, the National Student Financial Aid System (NSFAS) had the continent’s best record of loan repayment (about 60%).  Then, the government decided – on what many regard as quite spurious grounds – to make it harder for NSFAS to collect the loans, and repayment plummeted to about 20%.  This was good news for graduates of course: more money for them; but it effectively raised the price of increasing access.  One of the casualties of that was an inability to expand  middle-class families’ access to loans, a group who subsequently feel very squeezed.

The third factor was an uptick in student militancy this past March with the #RhodesMustFall campaign.  This started at the University of Cape Town where students wanted to remove a statue of the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes (they succeeded).  This morphed into a wider set of protests about the progress universities have made in transforming themselves since 1994, in particular with respect to the progress of black academics.

So with all this kindling, the relatively small sparks of what vice-chancellors thought was a run-of-the-mill tuition increase turned into a major conflagration, which went under the heading #FeesMustFall (a play on the earlier Rhodes campaign).  At first the government tried to straight-arm the students, with the Higher Education minster (and Communist party chief) Blade Nzimandize claiming maladroitly that he would start his own #StudentsMustFall campaign.  When that didn’t work, the ANC began trying to co-opt the protest, claiming students’ views as their own.  Eventually the protests grew so large that President Zuma eventually froze all fees for a year, and compensated institutions to the tune of 80% of the cost of the freeze.  But the ANC has also taken steps to give itself unprecedented authority to massively intrude on universities’ autonomy, so that it can more directly control costs and remove inconvenient administrators.

The fee freeze took some of the sting out of the protests, but it also emboldened some protestors who want to see South Africa move to a free fee system.  Given that participation rates for whites are between three and four times higher for blacks, this is a curiously regressive idea (and may explain why whites were seemingly so much more prominent in the #feesmustfall protests than in those for #rhodesmustfall).  The head of South Africa’s Centre for Higher Education Trust, Nico Cloete, skewered the idea in a University World News column this weekend (read it here; it’s long but very good), saying rightly that in a society as unequal as South Africa, “affordable higher education for all” is a necessary goal, but “free higher education for all” is morally wrong.

Which is dead on, frankly.  Fix student aid so the poor get more grant aid and the middle-class get more loan aid, sure.  More money for universities to maintain quality?  Sure (South Africa has an amazing set of universities for a middle-income country, but that’s at risk over the long-term).  But spending more money to make it free for the already highly privileged?  South Africa can and should do better than that.

May 29

Better Know a Higher Ed System: Lusophone Africa

If you’re ever depressed about the state of academia where you live, spare a thought for academics in a set of countries that are collectively one of higher education’s biggest backwaters: the Lusophone African countries of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome & Principe, Mozambique, and Angola.

The legacy of Portuguese colonialism hangs heavy over these countries.  After the Belgians, the Portuguese were probably the colonial power least concerned about educating native populations. They were also entrenched for a longer period of time, with the Portuguese only leaving in the mid-1970s.  Though both the University of Luanda in Angola (now Agostinho Neto University) and Lourenco Marques University in Mozambique (now Eduardo Mondlane University) were created prior to de-colonization, they were created for local whites who, almost to the very end, assumed that their colonialist enterprise would continue indefinitely: the number of university-educated blacks at the time of independence was minimal.  Both countries were academically devastated by the Portuguese withdrawal, and in both cases, the void was initially filled by visiting academics from fraternal socialist countries. 

The socialist period was important for both countries, as both decided to expand their systems along Soviet lines – meaning lots of small, narrowly-focussed institutions (e.g., universities for mining, for police, etc.) rather than as full universities.  Since the 1990s, both countries have added gaggles of private universities, but as is the case elsewhere in Africa, these are cheap and low-quality – hardly surprising in countries where universities have difficulty charging fees of over a couple of hundred dollars per student.

Despite these issues, the other three members of the African Lusophone community make Angola and Mozambique look like giants.  Cape Verdeans – an odd people, with half a million living in Cape Verde, and 700,000 living abroad – have it best: a nine-institution system (one public, eight private, with the majority of private institutions having been in operation only since 2009).  Sao Tome & Principe (population 175,000) has three tiny institutions (a public polytechnic, and two tiny privates), with a total of about 2,000 students.  Guinea-Bissau’s system is equal parts fascinating and insane.  About ten years ago it – sort of – had a public university (actually a public/private partnership), which promptly fell apart, leaving a bunch of independent faculties (medicine, business, economics, etc.) but no university; apart from that, there are a number of other private facilities, which spend a good deal of their time teaching university “bridge” courses, because the public secondary system has no grade 12.

Universities in these countries – with the exception of a couple of centres at Eduardo Mondlane and Agostinho Neto – are mostly about advancing science.  However, there’s simply not the infrastructure for it, though if Angola weren’t such a kelptocracy it might have used its oil wealth to build a decent education system by now.  In total, the five countries might produce 200 scientific publications per year, with Mozambique accounting for about half that (for comparison, Uganda alone manages 600 per year).  Students wanting to pursue scientific careers tend to grab a government scholarship to study abroad (usually in Brazil or Portugal, but increasingly China as well); having left the country to study, however, many of these students choose to stay abroad.

Conditions in African higher education are generally pretty tough (although, like the continent itself, things are gradually improving).  But at least Francophone and Anglophone Africa are linked to wider global academic communities, and can draw on vast scientific literature in recognizable languages, thanks to the sheer academic might of English- and French-speaking countries.  Lusophone Africa is a different story; neither Portugal nor Brazil can, in any way, be counted as scientific superpowers, and so the academic tradition upon which they draw is significantly shallower.

As a result of these networks, Lusophone countries simply don’t have access to the same kind of money as their Francophone and Anglophone counterparts.  At present, there’s no Lusophone equivalent to the kinds of massive academic assistance from which places like Tanzania or Uganda have benefited (it’s hard to walk around at Makerere without running into some kind of project funded by foreign governments or foundations).  Even if Lusophone countries do start to become wealthier, this problem of having weaker networks is going to remain; ultimately, closer links with China might be the only way to overcome this issue, but this is a very long-term solution.


April 28

Trust, Transparency, and Need-Based Aid

If you look around the world at the kinds of subsidies made available to students, you’ll be struck by the fact that there are two very large chunks of the world where need-based aid isn’t the dominant form: post-Socialist Europe and Africa.  The reasons for this boil down to a simple issue: trust.

In the post-socialist countries, the preference for merit-based aid over need-based aid is a relatively recent affair.  Prior to 1990, access to university was restricted both in absolute numbers and on ideological grounds: in order to attend university one had to have correct “origins”.  This was another way of saying that if your family was considered too bourgeois, you weren’t allowed to attend (Vaclav Havel, for instance, was denied entrance to university on these grounds).  Though regimes eased up on this somewhat as the 70s and 80s progressed, class origins continued to play a role in admissions up to the end of the regime.

So when it came time for new, post-socialist regimes to come up with student aid policies, there was considerable suspicion about anything that looked like it discriminated based on something like class.  Preferences based on parental characteristics, quite simply, were too tainted by communism to be a viable political project: nobody trusted government to discriminate between students based on something like income.  Merit-based aid, on the other hand, was not so burdened by history, and gave the appearance of being “objective” in the sense that exam results were measured in a consistent way across the country, and could easily be used to differentiate between students.  The results, in a word, were trustworthy.

In Africa, the trust problem is slightly more complex, and less tractable.  There, the state lacks the ability to monitor individuals’ income and consumption through the tax system.  Trying to run a need-based system of aid without means of income verification is difficult, to say the least (in bits of Eastern Europe – especially Russia – income verification poses the opposite problem in that people are reticent about providing documentation that would help the government verify income).  Without income verification, need-based systems tend to rely on proxies like ownership of land or livestock, which is either very complicated or impossible to verify.  These systems quickly fall into disrepute: because it is possible to cheat them, everyone comes to assume that those who receive need-based aid have cheated.  And so again, something simple and transparent – like merit as measured through examination results – becomes the de facto standard.  Everybody knows it’s ludicrously regressive, because the awards inevitably go to students from families rich enough to pay many multiples of university tuition to attend the best secondary schools, but at least it’s transparent and not corrupt.

Japan has a similar issue: it has no need-based grants, because no one trusts that the tax system accurately captures parental income.  It does, however, have a need-based loan system.  When I asked someone senior there about why they trusted need-testing for one and not the other, he simply said “because people pay back the loans”.

All of which is to say that need-based aid requires that students and families trust that state institutions will deal with them fairly, and state institutions need to trust that families won’t try to lie to them (or, at least, have reasonably robust measures of discovering lies).  In Canada, we take this for granted, but we shouldn’t.   Without trust, and the transparency that tax-based verification tools provide, need-based aid simply wouldn’t exist.

March 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System: South Africa

So, I was in South Africa last week talking to people from various ends of the higher education system.  It’s a fascinating place, which is attempting the almost-unimaginably difficult task of creating a single, functional system of education from the wreckage of apartheid.

One key aspect of contemporary South Africa is that genuine political competition is still some ways off.  Opposition parties exist, and the ruling alliance is experiencing some strain due to the increasing unhappiness of the main trade union, COSATU, but the fact of the matter is it’s still almost inconceivable the ANC could lose power before 2024 at the earliest.  Absent competition, quality of service delivery tends to suffer because government simply doesn’t have its feet to the fire very often.  And education is most certainly suffering. In fact, K-12 education is widely pointed to as the file where the ANC has performed the most poorly.  Obviously, the legacy of the apartheid-era Bantu education policies place a terrible burden on the system, but nevertheless when surveying the education system as a whole, words like “abysmal” and “train wreck” do spring to mind.

Only about half of all students finish twelve years of high school (most drop out between year 10 and year 12).  Of those, only about three-quarters pass the matriculation exams.  Of those, only thirty percent achieve a sufficiently good matric that they qualify (on paper at least) to attend university.  The result is that only about one-in-eight youth is actually eligible to attend university.  And of course within that one-eighth, whites and Indians are significantly over-represented.  Participation rates for whites are up around 50%; for Africans, they languish at around 10%.

Dropout rates within university are also a problem.  At best, only about half of students complete their three-year course of studies within six years, meaning that at the end of this very leaky pipeline, one finds an attainment rate of around 6%; nowhere near what is needed to run an advanced economy.  As a result, South Africa’s economy is not advanced in any sort of comprehensive way – what it has is a thin sliver of a developed economy, laid on top of a much larger economy indistinguishable from what you’d see in the rest of Africa.  If you can imagine dropping New Zealand into the middle of Kenya, you’ve more or less got the picture.

New Zealand dropped onto Kenya is a reasonably accurate description of the university system, too.  There are a handful of formerly-white institutions (Witswatersrand University, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, etc.), which are basically research universities (only really badly funded).  However, a majority of institutions are either historically black or recently-merged (more about mergers next week), which often seek to emulate research institutions, but haven’t even vaguely got the human or financial resources to act that way.  Shouldn’t they differentiate, you say?  In theory, perhaps, but here you again run into the apartheid legacy: how can anyone argue with a straight face for a system where the only “top” universities (i.e. research intensive ones) are the ones that are historically white?

The money problems are real, too.  South Africa’s GDP per capita is about the same as China’s ($6,500 US).  But China can support lots of world-class research on that budget because most of its profs don’t speak English that well, and hence have limited mobility.  It can pay them well below world rates, and so there is lots left over for lovely new infrastructure, labs, etc.  South Africa can’t get away with that.  A significant fraction of its academics are quite mobile and liable to leave for Australia, the US, or wherever, at the drop of a hat.  Their pay rates therefore have to be at least marginally competitive with those of much, much richer countries, which leaves very little left over for all the other stuff universities need to be excellent.

No simple answers here, but lots of challenges – and increasingly lots of interesting solutions, too.  I’ll have more on this next week.

The first area has to do with how institutions raise income.  Sub-Saharan African countries tend to fall into two groups: those that are over-reliant on government funding (most of Francophone and Lusophone Africa), and those that are reliant on private fees paid mainly to private institutions or through dual-track tuition systems at public universities (most of Anglophone Africa, especially East Africa).  What you don’t tend to see in Africa are universities relying on self-generated non-fee income to fund themselves.  Here’s where South African universities’ money comes from:

Figure 1: South African Universities’ Income by Source (Source: Vital Stats, Public Higher Education 2012, Council on Higher Education, South Africa)


One could quibble around the edges with this: if you count all the money government spends on student aid, the state stream is considerably bigger (and the tuition stream smaller), but the really amazing thing is the third-stream income, which comes neither from government or students. At 31%, it’s pretty much the highest percentage of anywhere in the world.

Figure 2: Third-Stream Income as a Percentage of Total University Income, South Africa and Selected OECD Countries (Source: Vital Stats, OECD Education at a Glance 2104, Table B3.1)


Interestingly, South African institutions are achieving this without a significant tradition of charitable giving.  This isn’t a US private college situation where the money is all coming from endowments; according to a 2009 survey, endowments account for only about 11% of the money.  About a third of it comes from contracts, and over 55% of it comes from things like sales of service.

Sure, the big old (sotto voce: “white”) institutions like Wits and UCT do better on this measure than others (48% and 40%, respectively), but even the poorest institutions (the universities of technology) make 15% of their income this way – same as Japan and Australia.  That’s evidence of a very high degree of entrepreneurialism.  Admirable.

The other interesting thing about South African institutions at the moment is the attention being paid to curriculum.  As I noted previously, South Africa is plagued by drop-outs; only about 50% of starters complete their studies.  The culprit, by general agreement, is under-preparedness of students; there is an articulation gap between secondary and post-secondary (which makes initial transitions difficult) and curricula in many subjects contain transition points that takes for granted certain knowledge and abilities that all students may not have.

(Interestingly, while there are wide gaps in primary and secondary schooling available to Africans and whites, the dropout problem is only partly related to this.  Though there are differences in completion rates by “population group” [the preferred way to say “race” in South Africa] they actually aren’t that wide: 6-year graduation rates for Africans are 47%, compared to 59% for whites.  Compare that to the US, where the rates are 40% for Blacks and 62% for whites.)

So, your country’s system has an articulation problem, a transition problem and – to top it off – worries about how well current education is preparing students for the future labour market.  What do you do?  Well, the current preferred solution to this problem (outlined in this document) is to lengthen periods of study:  that is, to move from a system of mostly three-year degrees to a system of mostly four-year degrees.  And this isn’t simply a matter of adding a base foundation year – what’s being contemplated is a wholesale re-writing of curricula from the ground-up.  In some ways, it’s a more daunting task than the Bologna curriculum re-write, which often involved little more than slicing five-year degrees into a three-year Bachelor’s degree, and a two-year Master’s.

It’s not entirely clear whether this will happen – cost implications are significant, and there isn’t a lot of money in the kitty in Pretoria.  But having gone through our own debate about degree-lengths a few years ago, it’s refreshing to see a discussion driven by desired learning outcomes and curriculum analysis rather than vigorous hand-waving from politicians.

South African universities have taken extraordinary measures to close the funding gap;  if they were able to take similarly bold measures to tackle the attainment gap, the payoff would be profound.

March 25

The Cost of Expanding Access in Poor Countries

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.

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