Africa: The Next Big Thing in Higher Education

Written on May 3, 2017 by Santiago Iñiguez in Education

By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Executive President of IE University

Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s region with the biggest potential for growth in higher education. According to a report of the Africa-America Institute (AAI), only 6 percent of young people in Africa attended university in 2015, as compared to the global average 25 percent. But the pace of growth is unparalleled: In the past decade the number of university students more than doubled in the region.

As I am heading towards Nairobi, Kenya, to attend the State of Education conference organised by AAI, I am reflecting on the fabulous opportunities for academic entrepreneurs in Africa. Also on the potential risks, such as imitating old fashioned educational models, outdated and questioned, or using traditional management models.

A cultural caution is pertinent as well. Even if we may talk soundly about higher education in Africa on the aggregate, the continent is hugely diverse. In fact, it would be more appropriate to talk about several Africas, particularly in the case of universities. Higher education is closely linked to the idiosyncrasy of each particular society, still heavily dependent on the regulation of national governments.

The rapid growth of higher education in Africa has witnessed the entrance of many new players, both local and international, over the past years. The AAI report identifies 200 public universities along with 468 private institutions in the region, which also shows the high expectations on the economic potential of higher education.

This amazing growth evidences the attractiveness of the continent, supported by its young and dynamic population. However, as I have shown elsewhere [1], returns from education always require longer periods to substantiate as compare with others industries, a fact that only few investors, the true long term entrepreneurs, realize.

The case for educational investments in Africa requires even more long-term vision. Alternatively, investors may opt for a differential approach that, in order to achieve success, may combine the following features:

Design low-cost operations and managing budgets effectively. This strategy entails reducing the exposure to financing on foreign currencies and probably hiring young, high potential faculty and management, or pre-retired professionals who may work, at least partly, on a pro-bono basis.

Pricing is an issue here and tuition does not reach the levels existing at American or European universities.

Similarly, the model of the endowed university is unimaginable here. Higher education in Africa requires a sort of reinvention its business model, a fascinating opportunity for academic entrepreneurs.

In order to achieve cost efficiency, universities may need to achieve scale, compatible with offering high quality. There is no contradiction between a reasonable size and excellence. A sustainable volume allows for the hiring of full-time faculty, the expansion of facilities and investment in learning technologies.

Foster open access of students, which require ample scholarship and loan schemes that prime talent. Education, and higher education in particular, is the best social equalizer, and can play a key integrative role in the African society, a continent extremely diverse and fragmented.

In order to develop a sustainable financial scheme for students, similar to other existing in Europe or the Americas, the support of both business organizations as well as foundations, domestic and foreign, is needed. Multilateral organizations such as the World Bank can also play a fundamental role here.

Explore the potential of high quality online formats. Given the population geographical dispersion, the vast distances but also the increasing access to cellular phones, online education via mobile platforms can offer a wider access and even adapt better to the circumstances of students and professionals.

Also, innovative and adaptive learning technologies may play a crucial role in Africa. Primary and secondary education institutions supply universities with very uneven applicants in terms of knowledge and skills. The development of new educational devices that better adapt to the profile and circumstances of each candidate, thus providing true personalization, may balance the handicaps of primary and secondary education.

As a segment of higher education, business schools can also act as catalysts for the development of sub-Saharan Africa. They can educate managers and grow entrepreneurs, thus providing the necessary cadres for companies and other relevant social institutions.

How can business education stakeholders, including business schools, contribute to the essential goal of spreading management culture across Africa?

1)First, by helping the process of creating more high quality business schools in Africa, in order to increase the number of competent managers who can create wealth and value for their societies in nearly every sector: from water to health, transportation, the public administration and education.

2)Encouraging more research on business in Africa, along with more courses focused on the continent in programs at business schools. Our students can learn more about Africa and explore both job and business opportunities there. The promotion of social entrepreneurship at business schools can also have extremely interesting results.

3)Increasing scholarship schemes for African students. There are still few resources devoted to this, though there is an increasing number of foundations and multilateral institutions increasing their contribution. The AAI has done a substantial job over the years to facilitate the access of African students to American universities, training the talent that may transform their societies when they return to their home countries. Ideally, the EU should launch a similar scheme to attract African students to European universities.

4)Fostering quality improvement schemes that spread the culture of excellence across business schools in Africa. For example the Global Improvement Network launched by AACSB, the global association of business schools. Recognizing that excellence in education may have many different versions, and that the one size fits all rule is not applicable here, this scheme aims at understanding the specifics of business education in Africa and spreading the best continental practices in the training of managers and entrepreneurs.

Africa was the home from where the first humans spread across the world thousands of years ago. Time has come to implement new educational models in the land of our early ancestors.


[1] Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, The Learning Curve: How business schools are reinventing education, (Palgrave Macmillan: London, 2011)


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