- Prof. Falola *
Private universities became popular and increased exponentially in Africa around the 1990s.
Before then, however, universities such as the American University in Cairo, founded in 1919, functioned amid the popularity and seeming intimidation of public universities.
What has become clear during the past few years is that public universities in Africa cannot fully satisfy the higher education needs on the continent; therefore, private universities serve a complementary role in higher education by creating access for many qualified applicants and breaking new grounds in research and innovation.
In fact, private universities in Africa have shown the potential for exponential growth.
In fewer than 30 years of operations, many private universities have registered themselves as counterparts or even superiors to many public universities across the continent.
In fact, public education in Africa needs restructuring and reforms to position African public universities as worthy contenders with other universities across the world.
If private universities have existed in less time and are beginning to make their mark, then a study of their operations on the continent would go a long way towards helping administrators of public universities on the best practices for developing a university that can compete with the best peers in different parts of the world.
Against this backdrop, two major conferences have been put on the 2022 higher education calendar, with the aim of forging a development-focused alliance between Africa’s private and public universities.
In focus are the frameworks of public university education in Africa, the models of private university governance in Africa, and how both the public and private universities can form a synergy to deliver quality university education.
To inform discussions, we have embarked on a study focusing on five African countries, namely Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya.
In collaboration with five top researchers – Professor Samuel Oloruntoba, Professor Sati Fwatshak, Professor Peter Wekesa, Professor John Mary Kanyamurwa, and Dr George Bob-Milliar – we have been probing the impact of private universities on public universities in these countries.
So, when university owners, vice-chancellors, professors and other academics, administrators, researchers and students gathered at the first conference on the campus of Babcock University campus in Ilishan-Remo, Nigeria, on 6-7 January, the aim was to facilitate research into previously unexplored or scarcely explored fields and to shed light on the impacts of the formation and growth of African private universities on African public universities.
The conference, organised by the University of Texas, Austin, United States, and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was designed so that every contributory aspect to the university sector would be explored.
So let us start by reflecting on the reports that have been gathered by the country researchers so far.
While the education systems of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa are on varying levels of stability and effectiveness, our researchers found out that there seems to be a parallel between the issues bedevilling higher education in four of the five African countries, excluding South Africa.
Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda seem to share the same problems in the higher education sector, which have hindered these countries from measuring up to their counterparts in other parts of the world.
Furthermore, to contribute to education provisioning in Africa, private universities have joined the ranks of higher education institutions in these countries.
While private universities are somewhat popular in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, they seem almost alien to South Africans.
This can be attributed to the excellent quality of public universities in the country and resistance, including in government circles, to establishing private universities there.
Our South African country researcher, Professor Samuel Oloruntoba, drew some parallels between the post-period effects of the apartheid system of education and how students were segregated across social class and race, with privileged white kids attending limited-access private schools, and the current misgivings and mistrust of the existence of private universities in South Africa.
Cross-poaching of staff members
Revisiting the similarities between the education systems of the remaining four countries, we see issues such as the cross-poaching of staff members.
It is an ingrained systemic flaw to find some staff members at public universities equally working at private universities.
Participants at the conference raised the cross-country issue of public universities losing their academic staff members to private universities even after these staff might have enjoyed the scholarship provisions accessible through the public universities.
Indeed, many reasons were deemed accountable for the poaching, including the timely payment of salaries and a better working environment.
Although the job security at private universities is lower, on average, than at public universities, lecturers from the public sector continue to move to the private sector, especially in the latter years of their service.
As part of the approach to explore every aspect, staff unionism was one of the issues of discourse at the conference. Staff unionism is largely present in public universities, but it is almost non-existent in private universities.
At public universities, staff unions primarily exist for the protection and welfare of staff members, especially as there are often disagreements on agreed salaries and allowances.
Notably, this problem is not peculiar to Nigeria alone, although it appears to be heightened in Nigeria, given the incessant negotiations and strike actions by different staff unions in the public universities.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities, the most popular staff union in Nigerian universities, claims that its struggle extends beyond the welfare and protection of its members to ensure that the Nigerian governments – both at federal and state levels – keep to the promise of funding and supporting the university education system.
This is seen in the struggle and victory over the creation of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund).
However, staff unionism is very much existent in Ghana, too. Staff members at Ghanaian public universities struggle for fair labour practices and regulation of wages across all government-owned universities.
The Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund) also supports Ghanaians’ access to quality education at all levels – basic, secondary and tertiary.
Over the years, the GETFund has been one of the major funding sources for tertiary education in Ghana.
Also, in South Africa, the National Tertiary Education Union is a player in the tertiary education system.
The conference highlighted the indispensable role of staff unions in the university education sector in all the countries studied.
The role of governments
It must be noted that the conference was a convening of different voices and views, both convergent and divergent, on the operations of university systems and the impacts of private universities on public universities.
Nonetheless, the conversations from all the panel sessions seemed to raise the same problems facing the tertiary education sector across all five countries.
When placed on the same pedestal as their counterparts from other parts of the world, these issues can well be seen as the reasons for the underperformance of African universities.
One of those challenges is the structure and framework of the policies guiding university education across the countries under study. Governments formulate and implement policies to portray their thinking patterns and beliefs.
Two cases in point are the formation of the governing councils in public universities in Nigeria and Ghana.
However, even if a government has the best technocrats working on its policies, it will implement only the aspects of the policies that seem to align with its existential truths.
As a result, the policies binding the establishment and functioning of public universities in the case-study countries reflect the policies of the past and present governments in those countries.
A country whose tertiary education system performs poorly owes that largely to its government and its policies.
Problems such as inadequate funding, unfavourable working conditions, lack of adequate facilities and infrastructure, low rate of research, and even lower research finding implementation rate can be traced back to the government.
What is the relationship between the town and the gown? How well is the government ready to implement the research findings and solutions being churned out in their hundreds or thousands at various universities across all five countries?
Does the framework of the policies binding the establishment of public universities allow these schools to pick an area of focus and continually provide solutions to the problems facing the country in that aspect?
As much as the government and its policies are to blame, the way universities, especially public ones, are managed also plays a role.
Key players from some private universities were present at the conference, and they established that private universities are not necessarily considerably more financially capable than their public counterparts.
The issue is more about how some private universities manage funds more efficiently than public institutions. It is the same in other sectors of the economy that are not fully privatised.
While government parastatals in those sectors may be in bad shape, private organisations are often much better off regarding the results they generate for their investments.
This boils down to how the average African treats public resources that do not belong to them or directly affect them, against how they treat resources considered private.
Since the funding for public universities is not often from the pockets of some of the key players like management, staff members and students, there is a lackadaisical attitude towards the hands-on and efficient management of resources to get optimal results for investments.
Furthermore, there was a consensus that African universities, especially public universities, need to make learning more student-focused and create easier processes for integrating students into the system. This is one of the areas where it was agreed that private universities are doing better.
While there were considerable disagreements on various issues, many valuable conclusions were reached, which have now formed the basis for many of the participants’ fresh ways of thinking and the foundation on which we will continue the second conference (with the same topic) in Kenya in July 2022.
The conference concludes that private universities are here to stay, and they have made some impacts on public universities, including issues of access and better management of funds.
In addition, it was concluded that it is high time African universities valued and implemented collaboration with one another, instead of limiting themselves to signing agreements with those in the West and Asia.
African universities are quick to seek and announce partnerships with universities from other parts of the world, but how many intra-continental university partnerships do we have?
There is strength in intra-African collaborations.
*Toyin Falola is a professor of history, university distinguished teaching professor and the Jacob and Sanger Mossiker chair in the humanities at the University of Texas at Austin in the United States.