Sub-Saharan Africa: The State of Public Higher Education and the Emergence of Private Sector Universities

It is generally accepted that higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is in deep turmoil. The crisis is manifested in declining quality standards, fiscal challenges, increased student enrollments, poor faculty moral, irrelevant curricula and rising unemployment among university graduates. Exacerbating matters, universities continue to suffer from deteriorating infrastructures — dilapidated buildings, near-collapsed libraries and ill-equipped laboratories — and the ongoing brain drain. Traditional government support systems can no longer cope with the severe problems that have undermined the region’s systems of higher education, and alternative solutions suggested by international aid organizations have not faired any better.

The World Bank’s approach to the crisis provides a good illustration of this failure. Until the late 1990s, the bank firmly believed that investment in education should be concentrated at the primary- and secondary-school levels. The consensus for many years was that in a region where only one-third of the population is literate, more could be accomplished by supporting public pre-university education. Other international aid agencies and donors adopted more or less the same approach. As a result, higher education systems in sub-Saharan Africa have only attracted minimal support and investment over the years, something that has evoked severe criticism from many circles. In 2000, The Task Force on Higher Education and Society published a report entitled “Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise [1]“, which bluntly pointed out that the bank’s “narrow and…misleading economic analysis has contributed to the view that public investment in universities and colleges brings meager returns compared to investment in primary and secondary schools.”

After many such critiques, the World Bank only very recently changed its outlook on investing in education, as demonstrated in a new report jointly compiled by the World Bank and UNESCO [2]. The new approach not only focuses on postsecondary education, but places special emphasis on promoting the growth of private colleges and universities. It is now generally acknowledged that the privatization of higher education can play a crucial role in revitalizing the region’s moribund universities.

Privatization of Higher Education

Private universities offer a potentially viable alternative for expanding access to higher education in the region without incurring significant government costs. This factor alone has earned private education the praise of education experts and government officials alike. As financially strapped public universities find themselves increasingly hard-pressed to absorb the rapidly escalating numbers of secondary-school graduates — the combined effect of population growth and rising demand — many governments are actively encouraging private institutions to take up the slack. Hence, the privatization of higher education over the past 10 years or so has become a noticeable trend throughout much of the continent.

In particular, the eastern and southern portions of Africa have witnessed significant growth in the number of private institutions catering to postsecondary school students. In 1991, for example, there were an estimated 10,000 students enrolled in some 35 private colleges and universities in Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe. A large percentage of this number was concentrated in Kenya, with 11 private institutions enrolling 4,000 students, and in the Sudan, where three sizeable private and religious universities enrolled approximately 3,000 students that year. The Republic of the Congo is also a large provider of private higher education (nine private colleges and universities), although exact enrollment figures for that country remain unavailable. At the same time, new private religious universities were in the planning stages or under way in Angola, Cameroon, Mozambique, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

Unfortunately, this trend has not spread to West Africa, where private universities are virtually nonexistent. Cuttington College in Liberia, established as a religious institution in 1847, is an exception.

However, it is hoped that the western nations will follow Kenya’s example. In 1989, Kenya became the region’s first country to recognize the potential of private higher education by passing laws providing for the registration of privately owned universities. Three institutions were granted official recognition that year, and 13 others were allowed to operate on an interim basis. In 2000, 27 new institutions applied for recognition.

Uganda and Tanzania have recently taken steps to follow Kenya’s lead. New legislation passed in Uganda, for instance, paves the way for establishing a National Council for Higher Education to accredit private universities. In the meantime, eight private institutions in that country are currently operating with provisional recognition.

In Tanzania, where a Higher Education Accreditation Council was established in 1995, four new private universities have met the requirements for official recognition. More than 19 other institutions are now either in the development phases or in the process of being accredited.

To a lesser extent, the same pattern of educational development is taking place in other parts of the continent. In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, there are plans to establish a private Catholic university at Yamoussoukro, home of the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Paix [3]. Both Burundi and Togo now have private institutions that specialize in resource management. In Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone, private institutions of higher education tend to be more technology-oriented, especially in computer science.

There are several compelling factors that have spurred the recent proliferation of private higher education in sub-Saharan Africa. A few of these will be discussed briefly in the following pages.


Escalating demand for higher education, coupled with severe regional economic decline, has led to the devastation of public universities throughout much of the region, and the shortage of university places has reached a critical point. In Uganda, for example, 35,000 applicants qualify each year for admission, but the country’s two public universities can take in only 12,000 new students.

The enrollment surge is the product of both pent-up demand for higher education and the limited capacity of state-funded universities to satisfy this demand. A recent UNESCO report showed only 3.5 percent of the college-age population in the region has access to higher education, compared with 60 percent in industrialized countries. In Kenya, 66 percent of high school graduates who qualified for university admission in national examinations were not able to secure a place at one of the country’s six public universities. That left some 22,000 students without access to public higher education. Similar figures can be found for countries in both the western and central portions of the continent. A leading World Bank education specialist estimated that “most African countries will have to at least double their higher education enrollment over the next decade to simply maintain [these] current, very low participation rates.” (Saint, 1992).


Historically, religious ideologies have played a pivotal role in the establishment of higher education institutions on the African continent. Since colonial times, organizations affiliated with Christian sects have dominated private education. When Catholic and Protestant missionaries first came to Africa, they built primary and secondary schools. Later, they established Christian universities in part to help train new members of the clergy. Kenya’s four oldest private institutions are all Christian-affiliated. Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College, which was established in 1827, maintains strong ties with the Anglican Church.

European colonialism conferred a distinct advantage to Christianity, creating a social imbalance that exists to this day. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Christian missionaries established a network of schools designed to provide education in general subjects as well as in religion. In British-controlled Africa, the missionaries saw to it that the colonial government did not develop or support any secular or pluralistic school system, thus granting Christians an effective monopoly on formal education in Nigeria and other British colonies.

More recently, the spread of Islam has increased the demand for Islamic universities in the region. This trend is particularly noticeable in East Africa, where high concentrations of Muslims are found, although Nigeria seems to be experiencing increasing demand for Islamic higher education as well. Many African Muslims who feel marginalized from current systems of state-sponsored higher education see the private universities — many of them religion-based — as the only way to ensure that they will be able to enjoy the same educational opportunities available to non-Muslims. The model for these aspirants is Islamic University in Uganda , founded in 1990 by the Saudi-based Organization [4] of the Islamic Conference.

For many years, Muslim parents perceived Christian schools to be intrinsically hostile to Islam, and as a result, many Muslims did not attend school and fell far behind their Christian counterparts. Even today, Muslim students have yet to catch up. Islamic universities like the one in Uganda are attempting to close the gap by offering Muslims a broad-based education, which combines Islamic scholarship with a more secular curriculum.

Entrepreneurial Reasons

The relatively recent proliferation of for-profit higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is part of a larger, worldwide trend toward privatization. Until quite recently, the main role of public universities in many African countries was to train members of a small elite to become civil servants. Many institutions, still saddled with that legacy, struggle to produce graduates who will fit into today’s labor market. In contrast, private institutions of higher education offer practical, job-oriented programs, designed to facilitate the student’s entry into the labor market upon graduation. Many of the four-year undergraduate programs being offered at these schools include business administration, commercial design, hotel management and tourism and secretarial studies. These programs are very similar to the kind of non-university higher education programs launched throughout much of Europe in the 1970s.

In the current climate of market-oriented globalization, private institutions of higher education that enhance the employability of their graduates are attracting students, despite the higher tuition. As the unemployment rate among traditional arts and sciences graduates continues to climb, it is not surprising that private universities that promise jobs are becoming increasingly popular.

Special Concerns

As public universities in the region verge on a state of collapse, private universities have become an alternative route for many students, especially those who come from wealthy families, to gain access to higher education. The inherent danger in privatized higher education is that it will only benefit specific groups within the student population. Only certain religious communities (Muslims, Catholics, etc.), ethnic groups or the very wealthy have access to private institutions, something that will inevitably lead to further social fragmentation of the region. It is therefore essential that all students — regardless of financial, religious or ethnic background — have equal access to higher education.

Public and private universities in the region need to define their own philosophies and long-term objectives within the framework of a developing society. Such a philosophy must include the application of knowledge for practical use within a given society, and the acceptance of diversity aimed at the promotion of mutual understanding, human rights and respect within and among nations. The education of young adults plays a vital role in the process of nation building. Private universities, in particular, will be crucial to this process, so governments must pass legislation that will facilitate the creation of such institutions and should offer them whatever support they can provide within their means.

As more and more education systems around the world embrace market-oriented approaches to become more competitive, sub-Saharan Africa will have to jump on the bandwagon and adopt private education. For nearly 30 years now, African governments have tried to manage higher education; the results have been less than satisfactory. The time is ripe for the private sector to get involved in establishing and running private institutions of higher education.


Saint, W. 1992. Universities in Africa: Strategies for Stability and Revitalization. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

World Bank. 2000. Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise. Washington, D.C.