How to fund Africa’s higher education?

Copyright: Joan Bardeletti / Panos

By – Kaz Janowski is editor at SciDev.Net

SciDev.Net’s online debate raised vital questions about how money should flow into universities, and for what purpose.

What is the future of higher education funding in Africa? This was the question asked by SciDev.Net at a recent online debate (28 July). How money should flow into universities was at the heart of it. Should it be from government research councils or student fees ­— or, more controversially, from industry?

There are more options. Patronage of students by individuals is one; philanthropists is another. Funding could also come through local communities funding their members — something known as ‘harambi’ in Kenya, as one of the panellists, Beatrice Nelima of the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), pointed out.

As an editorial fly on the wall during the debate, I observed the rapid exchange of comments without wading in. I’d now like to share some of the questions that came to mind, and highlight some raised by others during the debate.

What are universities for?

The first question is about the fundamental purpose of universities: what are, or should, they be for? Thandi Mgwebi, from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, raised this during the debate and offered an answer. “It is knowledge production. [And] innovation is a result of knowledge production. [So] there is a clear value chain of innovation that must be supported.”

Three questions on the purpose of universities

What are, or should they be for?

How should universities plan for funding streams from wealthy donors? And how much should they rely on them?

Should there be taxes specifically earmarked for higher education?

Mgwebi then argued that universities must be supported to either partner with science councils or technology universities — and where possible, they should produce their own innovations. “The role of industry cannot be overemphasised here”, she added.

This view wasn’t shared by Brian Kamanzi, South African student activist and writer. “I don’t think that [knowledge production] is the main purpose of universities,” he said. “The knowledge project is one aspect. I think a public university specifically supports and facilitates the needs of the public.”

One could probably say without too much controversy that universities have more than one purpose. These include both the needs of the public and knowledge production. Decisions about appropriate partners and funding streams would then vary depending on the relative emphasis on different purposes.

Private and public funding

The second question that came to mind in the course of the debate relates to the role of philanthropy — something which energized many participants. How should universities plan for funding streams from wealthy donors? And how much should they rely on them?

Philanthropic funding can be fickle, and it often comes with agendas. In the context of universities, vice chancellors are well aware that there are only certain areas of work which can attract this type of funding.

My own feeling is that while wealthy philanthropists are often happy to fund buildings named after them and new research centres doing cutting edge research, they tend to be less interested in funding the ‘bread and butter’ aspects of a university’s work such as infrastructure and equipment.

The third question relates to public funding for universities: should there be taxes specifically earmarked for higher education? A wealth tax was suggested by some participants as a substitute for philanthropy — a kind of ‘forced’ philanthropy.

But, as others observed, an increase in general taxation to benefit higher education won’t be easy to achieve. Speaking about the Kenyan context, Beatrice Nelima said: “The Revenue Authority is having problems meeting its targets! …. I do not foresee a solution in taxation. Kenyans are already crushing under the current tax burden and any additional taxes will increase the propensity to evade.”

Inclusive learning

In the course of the debate the discussion turned to Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls on countries to: “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. There was considerable discussion about the importance of ensuring that fees don’t act as an obstacle to this goal, and about the importance of equitable access for women and people with lower or middle incomes:

Josepha Foa, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Buea, Cameroon, said: “We need affirmative action for women. Their needs are different and tend to cost more. There should be quotas for females in any support scheme that is developed, especially for postgraduate training and in the STEMs.”Foba also commented on social aspects that often go unseen. “Traditional practices also weigh in. [That is,] there is the unintentional expectation that young women should be able to get male friends/suitors to help them through higher education. This has affected mindsets.”

“Thinking about equality of access prompted another question: how to fund lifelong learning through higher education institutions. As an older person myself, I wondered why this did not come up in the debate. As Africa’s youthful demography shifts, access to lifelong learning will, I think, become increasingly significant. ”

Kaz Janowski A comment by the Canon Collins Trust highlighted another ‘blind spot’ in the funding system via the example of South Africa’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). “[The scheme] provides funding for students from very low income backgrounds. However … it is the ‘missing middle’ who are perhaps most disadvantaged by the current system. Not eligible for funding, but unable to rely on support from their families for financial support, these students from lower middle-class backgrounds are often forced to work full time alongside their studies, resulting in high dropout rates.”

Thinking about equality of access prompted another question: how to fund lifelong learning through higher education institutions. As an older person myself, I wondered why this did not come up in the debate. As Africa’s youthful demography shifts, access to lifelong learning will, I think, become increasingly significant.

Three central aims

This relates to my final question: how do we take into account the nature of education itself, for individuals and society — as opposed to the nature and goal of universities as institutions — in thinking about future funding streams?

I see education, at all levels, as having three central aims: preparing students for jobs; broadening the mind of individuals and widening the knowledge base of society in general; and preparing young people to be part of the broader social fabric. How should these aims be balanced in thinking about future funding streams?

This has a bearing on decisions about relative allocation of funds to research and teaching, something touched on in the debate. It also has a bearing on the relative allocation of funding to different subjects and different age groups, issues not covered in our debate.

Finally, I’d like to extend warm thanks to all who contributed to the discussion and to the staff who organized it, ending with a quote from Beatrice Nelima:
“…The messages from this forum should be packaged nicely and neatly for our policy makers to make decisions that promote equitable access to quality and relevant university education!”

Kaz Janowski is editor at SciDev.Net

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