The literature on higher education in developing countries is full of varying and contradictory opinions on what is required to promote a thriving educational system. One important set of voices that is often missing from the discussion are those of students themselves. With this in mind, I conducted a survey in 2006 of recent graduates from universities throughout sub-Saharan Africa, asking them about their experiences and their recommendations for changes. Although university systems varied widely in different countries, students’ comments had many common themes.
In general, students described exploding demand for higher education that strained existing resources. They also repeatedly mentioned lack of internet access and computer training. In resource-limited universities, students want internet access to utilize educational material they cannot get in the classroom. When asked what, if anything, the international community should do to promote the development of African universities, the single most frequent response was “send computers”.
This survey was necessarily small and unscientific, consisting largely of students who I met and taught during two teaching visits to Africa in 2006. All the respondents were university graduates in science, engineering or mathematics, which may also produce some bias in the responses. Internet usage across sub-Saharan Africa is rising quickly –the internet cafe is now a ubiquitous feature of African cities – however, that interest in internet access is unlikely to be restricted to a single subset of students. My hope is that small survey projects such as this one can provide insights into the state of African higher education and can stimulate broader efforts to capture the voices and opinions of students. The results of this survey can be taken as a small but hopefully valuable window into the experience of attending university in sub-Saharan Africa. Survey responses and discussion of related issues are now online at: www.arp.harvard.edu/AfricaHigherEducation .
Exploding Demand/Limited Resources
Per-pupil spending on higher education in Africa has declined in recent years. The causes for this are many, including economic downturns in many countries, pressure from the World Bank and other international agencies to focus resources on primary education, and rising demand for higher education. Students in most sub-Saharan countries describe conditions that make learning a heroic challenge, with some combination of obstacles that include: the absence of laboratory facilities, outdated textbooks, prohibitive fees, and classrooms overflowing with twice as many students as they are designed to accommodate.
In some countries, universities have continued to open their doors to a majority of qualified applicants and as a result university enrollments have skyrocketed. Students describe having to arrive at campus hours early to gain a seat in class or resorting to sitting in the stairwell straining to hear lectures.
Class sizes of 500-800 are not uncommon. In other countries, government spending on higher education is kept manageable by strictly limiting the number of university places available, both overall and within specific departments. Although engineering is vital for development, and various international reports have described a critical engineering shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, several of my brightest students reported being denied places in university engineering programs because of strict quotas that limit the number of students a resource-poor department is able to enroll.
Limited government funds for higher education also mean that student fees are increasing sharply in most sub-Saharan countries. Tuition and fees even at public universities now often exceed mean per capita income. Meanwhile, only two sub-Saharan countries – Kenya and South Africa – have significant student loan programs. Respondents to this survey did come from a wide range of backgrounds (60% had parents with no college education, and 9% had parents with no schooling at all). If, however, African governments continue to meet university budgets with higher student fees or to defer education to new private fee-charging institutions without building adequate loan programs, inequities in Africa will widen as education becomes increasingly restricted to the well-off.
Internet Access and its Benefits
None of the students surveyed reported regular, on-demand internet access available through their universities. At many universities internet access simply does not exist; at others it is restricted to only faculty and graduate students; in the best of cases, undergraduates can sign up to use computers during limited times. Connections are slow enough however that faculty and graduate students may have difficulty accessing international scientific literature (that portion of it which is public, at any rate; most scientific papers are held under copyright by private publishers). The result is enhanced isolation of African universities from the international intellectual and scientific community.
Students surveyed described wanting internet access badly enough to pay steep fees at outside internet cafes. (Fees for an hour’s usage can approach or exceed daily per-capita income). One student describes spending large parts of the day walking to an internet cafe because he could not afford both transportation and connection charges. Students chafe at the limitations of outdated textbooks and want connection to the wider world, and they will spend considerable time and money to get it.
Internet usage for education in African universities seems to currently occur on an ad hoc and individual basis. Improved connectivity would however also allow more systematic enrichment of classroom instruction. “Distance learning” initiatives are widely touted, for example, but require adequate connectivity and infrastructure. And the problem of outmoded textbooks can be solved cost-effectively given a fast internet connection and the access it provides to a wealth of academic content. In recent years, a movement has arisen among universities and organizations in the developed world to place course notes and complete textbooks on the web for all to use. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT ) is a leader in this effort and has vowed to have every MIT course freely available online through its OpenCourseWare  initiative by the end of 2007. Nearly all of the African students surveyed described their university curricula as excessively theoretical, with little or no applied science. Ending the isolation of sub-Saharan universities and promoting teaching modeled on the material and practices developed at schools like MIT is an obvious remedy.
Why is Internet Access Limited?
Internet access at sub-Saharan universities is limited not because of a lack of initiative from faculty and administrators, but because of prohibitive costs for connectivity across the continent. The typical sub-Saharan university, with tens of thousands of students, has the internet bandwidth of a typical U.S. household, and for that they pay as much as US$13,000 per month. Purchasing the bandwidth of a normal U.S. university (1 Gbps) would, by extension, cost an unaffordable $2.3 million per month.
Telecommunications costs across sub-Saharan Africa are driven high by the lack of infrastructure, specifically the fiber-optic cables that carry signals across the continent and to Europe. Currently a single cable runs down the West African coast; East Africa is completely disconnected from the fiber network; the interior of Africa likewise. Prices remain high even in West Africa because its single cable is run by a monopoly consortium of communications providers. In some countries, the cable is even underutilized, i.e. the local consortium member has adopted a “high cost / low volume” strategy to drive profits. As a result, many African universities resort to satellite connections instead because the cable brings them no advantage. The U.S.-based Partnership for Higher Education in Africa  has set up a program to subsidize satellite connections for some African universities, dropping their monthly rates by a factor of three. Unfortunately, this is still too high to be practical for educational uses such as the widespread downloading of textbooks.
The current situation of crippling internet costs is likely to change abruptly in the coming years. No fewer than four separate proposals for submarine optical fiber cables along the East African coast are currently in play, and efforts are ongoing to build overland networks through many East African countries. (Landlocked Rwanda, with aspirations to build a knowledge-based economy, is a regional leader in this effort, and has pushed hard for connectivity overland through Kenya). Meanwhile South Africa, with some of the highest telecoms costs in Africa, has declared internet access to be a vital public service, the first step in breaking the cable-access monopoly and reducing costs for consumers. Many analysts within Africa are without hope; however, they expect that if internet connectivity costs can be lowered in some countries, the economics and educational benefits will be so great that other countries will be pressured to follow suit. The result of such action may be a tremendous opportunity for African higher education.
The African students surveyed overwhelmingly felt that expansion of tertiary education in general (and applied sciences in particular) was necessary for economic development in Africa. Indeed, no country in the modern world has achieved high income without producing large numbers of trained professionals, doctors, engineers, and scientists. Most sub-Saharan African countries now have 80-100% primary education enrollments, and demand for higher education is consequently booming. Lowered telecommunications prices can help expand access to quality higher education, thereby bringing existing curricula into line with students’ needs and allowing distance learning schemes to increase enrollments without further straining existing campuses. Ending Africa’s digital isolation appears a fundamental step in its development.
Comments and suggestions on the student survey at www.arp.harvard.edu/AfricaHigherEducation  are welcome and can be sent to [email protected]  or [email protected] . The website also holds blank survey forms, and we would particularly welcome commentary from graduates of African universities.