Thirst for Education Overwhelms African Universities

African universities, like the Legon campus of the University of Ghana, struggle with overcrowding and brain drain. (Photo: Allison Green)

Demand for higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is exploding, and countries like Ghana are struggling to cope.

Though sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s lowest university enrollment rates, Ghana has been forced to tackle Africa’s newest development problem — many more applicants than slots to fill.

"No nation develops without education," said Stephen K. Balado Manu, chairman of Parliament’s Select Committee on Education. "We need to take higher education seriously."

Aid groups once concentrated on expanding primary education, so universities received less attention and funding. But, as more Africans become better-educated, demand for university education has risen, pressuring already-strained institutions.

Higher enrollments are stressing many of Africa’s colleges and universities. A May 2007 New York Times article that pointed to deteriorating conditions at Africa’s finest universities drew criticism from the Association of African Universities (A.A.U.).

"There are a tremendous number of students, and the universities are not prepared to handle them," said an A.A.U. spokesman, who asked that his name be withheld. "But it is difficult to refuse people."

Student enrollment at African universities, most built in the 1960's and 1970's as colonialism was collapsing, has almost tripled. The A.A.U. notes that campuses built to hold 15,000 to 20,000 students are now admitting two to three times that many. In the past seven years, enrollment at Ghana’s top public college, the University of Ghana at Legon, has more than doubled, to 28,482.

"They are overcrowded, it is true," said Manu. "Those rooms [dormitories] meant for two are now taking four, sometimes six. People want to have education, but the resources are limited."

Classrooms are crowded, agreed Adelaide Sankofi, 24, a student in business administration at Legon.

"If you don’t go [to class] early, at least five or ten minutes, then you have to sit at the back. If you have very short eyesight, and if you sit at the back, you would not be able to see."

Universities have other problems. Though the National Council on Tertiary Education claims that 15 percent of Ghana’s budget is devoted to higher education, many institutions are short of research equipment and supplies.

"You can have the best-trained teachers in the world, but where will they be without the proper equipment?" the A.A.U. spokesman wondered.

In an effort to boost funding, the Ghana Education Trust Fund was established in 2001. It draws money from a value added tax.

Private colleges have jumped into the game, raising concerns that the quality of higher ed could slip.

"What I caution against is the quality," said Manu. "If we are not careful, we will expand and produce graduates who are unemployable."

In one of the most recent available estimates, a 1999 report, the Ghana Statistical Service found that unemployment among recent graduates was negligible. True unemployment is probably higher than that, since only those actively seeking jobs were counted, a National Council for Tertiary Education report noted.

Ghana offers some of the best higher education in Africa, with its universities ranked among the top 50 on the continent.

"Brain drain" is another problem. Many educated Africans leave for better pay and better living conditions in Europe and the United States.

Policymakers are thinking about keeping back graduation certificates until the graduate has worked for a certain number of years at home. The exodus of graduates is particularly devastating, as most have taken degrees in high-in-demand fields such as medicine and engineering. Some 6 percent of doctors trained in Ghana leave the country, University of Ghana vice chancellor Edward Ofori-Sarpang was quoted as saying in local press reports in 2003.

Though university tuition is about $100 per year, that can be tough for families to afford, and recently fees rose 10 percent, a spokesman for the National Council on Tertiary Education said. In 1999, students demonstrated against tuition fees.

But Emmanuel Yehboah, 23, a graphic design student at the University of Ghana, Legon called the fees moderate.

"They are affordable," he said. "Most of the parents can’t afford to pay, so the child has to work hard to be able to go to school."

Female enrollment is low; they have less access to education on all levels, which feeds into their lower university attendance. The gender gap "was not well understood in the past because of traditional values," the A.A.U. spokesman said. "Now we know the necessity of gender balance, but in reality the gap is huge."

Allison Green is a senior at the University of Kansas, where she studies history and political science. She wrote this story while studying in New York University’s journalism program in Ghana. This article was first published on NYU Livewire, a biweekly service supplying newspapers and magazines with feature stories about and for young people in college and their twenties.