The quality of higher education in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region has deteriorated and the number of academic staff has declined.
The region has the lowest levels of higher education provision and enrolments in the world, despite the growing demand for higher education in African countries.
The SADC has an enrolment rate of just 6.3 percent.
Doctoral registrations at universities only stand at 1 percent of regional university enrolments.
This is according to a presentation by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (Sarua) at a two-day meeting of SADC ministers of higher education and training held in Joburg this week.
The extraordinary ministerial meeting was held to formulate a clear policy vision for higher education in SADC countries.
In 2010, tertiary enrolment rates were half of what they were in Africa and less than a sixth of the rest of the world’s.
“Higher education enrolment just managed to keep pace with population growth,” says a report by Sarua.
However, tertiary enrolment has risen by 20 percent in SA and by 15 percent in Mauritius over the past 20 years.
According to Sarua, SADC has invested heavily in education since 1970, and by 2010 it was spending more on education than any other region in the world. However, the association said most investment went towards primary education and less on higher education.
“As a result, higher education enrolment outcomes reflect poorly on the education investment made,” reads the report.
Speaking at the meeting, SA’s deputy minister of Higher Education, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize, said the pressures by the World Bank through its structural adjustment programmes “discouraged investments in higher education in favour of the lower levels of education”.
“The idea was that for the developing countries, primary education presents higher returns on investment than university education, which was considered a luxury for these nations,” she said.
She added that the World Bank had since realised the value of higher education and its contribution to socio-economic and technological development.
The Sarua report saysthat in 2050 the region is projected to achieve a 16.3 percent higher education enrolment rate – a figure that is too low compared to the current global gross tertiary enrolment rate of 30 percent.
According to Sarua, the last time the SADC region enrolment rate was on a par with other regions was in the 1970s.
By 2010, enrolment in those regions had risen by over 20 percent.
The association also highlighted that between 1991 and 2006 the demand for higher education increased threefold but funding only doubled.
“The result of increasing numbers of students and lower levels of funding has been a decline in per-student funding as well as a decrease in the quality of higher education and the number of academic teachers in Africa,” reads the report.
The report says Malawi and Mozambique are the only countries that provide higher education “at almost no cost to the student”, while the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mauritius students are responsible for a “large portion of higher education funding”.
University funding mostly comes from governments and student fees.
The hairman of the SADC Ministers of Education and Training, Professor Arlindo Chilundu, said new strategies for funding higher education should be explored to transform higher education in the region.
“Perhaps it is time now for our governments to ask higher education institutions to look for their own funds, as being dependent on public funding – which dwindles every year – is a serious threat to the growth we desire in higher education,” said Chilundu, who is also the vice minister of education in Mozambique.
Sarua also raised concerns that institutions struggled to develop and retain academic staff.
“While doctoral education has gained momentum elsewhere in the world, the region lags critically behind in the number of PhD graduates it produces,” read the report.
Out of all the SADC countries, SA’s public universities are leading in producing PhD graduates.
In 2008, out of the total doctoral degrees gained across the SADC countries, 1 274 were from South African institutions, while the SADC’s other state-funded universities produced 143 PhDs between them.
According to Sarua, developing countries such as Turkey and Brazil produced 48 and 52 PhD graduates per million people per year respectively, while SADC produced only 28 PhD graduates per million per year.
Sarua noted challenges such as lack of guidance from experienced academics, the absence of programmes to strengthen the engagement between new and established academics, and inadequate research funding for new academics as some of the challenges facing doctoral students.
Sarua recommended among other things centres of excellence “as a mechanism for doctoral students and supervisors to internalise their studies” and an expansion in the levels of funding for doctoral studies as a way to grow the number of PhD students.
Mkhize told the delegation that the region also needed to look at the relevance of the programmes that were offered in SADC’s institutions for the “developmental needs of our region”.
She said the education system must respond to the region’s priorities and not “copy” development paths from developed countries, as the priorities were not the same.
Chilundo added that leadership and governance of higher education needed to improve.
“It is therefore imperative that as a region we must transform our approach to higher education in a revolutionary manner,” he said.
A technical committee was established to implement recommendations that came out of the meeting. The committee will report annually to the SADC committee of senior officials responsible for education and training.
It is tasked with planning a funding strategy, a regional higher education donor conference and country teams to develop proposals to expand and revitalise higher education in the region.