Why Africa should embrace private sector higher education

Hichem Omezzine

By Hichem Omezzine, Director, Private Equity and Global Lead for Education at Actis

At a crossroads, the continent has an opportunity to boost education provision by embracing bold and ambitious private sector solutions.

Access to better education infrastructure equals stronger and sustained economic growth. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 is “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. This is a hard reality in Africa: it has a massive shortfall of access at a time when its young population is soaring and the pace of change for the workplace is accelerating away. Bridging the gap and creating the best educational ecosystem is, therefore, critical. An entire continent’s prospects depend on it.

The population growth is staggering. Never has a region experienced such rapid population growth. The 2018 World Bank report, Poverty and Shared Prosperity, recognises this, forecasting that unless higher education is dealt with, Africa risks being left behind. By 2030, Africa may be home to almost all the world’s people living in poverty.

The region’s largest economy provides an example of the sheer scale of the youth population: Nigeria – the most populous country (over 200 million) on the continent with a median age of just 17.9 years, has a considerable supply-demand imbalance when it comes to accessing higher education institutions.

Under a third of students who sit for the requisite exams (Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations, or UTME) manage to find a place. Tertiary institutions in Nigeria cannot currently accommodate over a million students seeking admission every year. Extensive research by L.E.K Consulting suggests that for sub-Saharan Africa to grow, the number of higher education seats needs to rise by 2x-3x what is available today.

As fiscal gaps widen in the current health crisis, the burden on the public sector is further accentuated and, as the UN Special Envoy for Global Education and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown points out, international aid for education is declining. Recent trends show that private institutions can go a considerable way to filling the gap. Many of the markets such as India, Senegal, Mozambique, Togo, Niger that have achieved 2x-3x university seat growth have done so in partnership with the private sector.

Private institutions clearly need to be accountable. A huge portion of Africa’s future intellectual property and growth is in their hands. So, they need to listen to what young people need and what today’s complex, globalised and evermore digitised world of work needs. The 2019 Pearson Global Learner survey shows us that people are moving beyond traditional learning. The global survey of 11,083 by pollsters, Harris, (perhaps unsurprisingly) puts English as the most important global language. The second most important is not Chinese – its ‘coding’.

Not only does the current population believe that being able to code is important, they also have more faith in vocational and soft skills than before. And, people are increasingly less likely to end up building a career in the university major that they studied.

This is, therefore, the challenge for education providers: to build and deliver, often remotely using technology, curricula that meets the needs of the global marketplace and provide undergraduates with the skills they need to succeed in a complex, fast-moving jobs market.

Institutions such as Honoris United Universities have built curricula, teaching methods and a ‘collaborative intelligence’ model that places emphasis on preparing undergraduates for the world of work. It has developed a regional network and a learning ecosystem that equips students with the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed in the 21st century – it also places emphasis on developing a mobile, digitalised global workforce. Its programs, faculty, technology, labs and infrastructure must all echo these values. It has created something called ‘iLeadLAB’, a makerspace, a state-of-the-art medical simulation center in Tunisia and an artificial intelligence laboratory is on its way.

When it comes to soft skills, educators need to double-down on the importance of problem solving, communication, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, collaborative thinking, entrepreneurialism and digital literacy. They also need to understand that, as is shown in the Pearson report, young people are ready for new ways of learning – 81% of the 1,000+ people surveyed believe that learning will become more ‘DIY’ the older you get. In parts of the developing world, there is a growing focus on hiring tutors or consultants to help students compete. What does this tell us? That young people ‘get it’: they know that their traditional academic education is not enough – they know that they need a competitive edge with soft skills. And, they know that they need to be digitally literate.

Higher education institutions in Africa have an enormous responsibility and opportunity to give young people what they want and what they need above and beyond academics. It is important to be clear that the kind of approach outlined here is in addition to and not in place of academic learning. The combined approach improves job prospects, generates opportunities and alters an individual’s future for the better.

The positive impact is manifold – more higher education institutions, mean greater resources for research, which raises standards across the board. It is by widening access through different modes of delivery and then providing the right kind of high quality, skills-based and employment minded curricula that higher education institutions can deliver economic growth.