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Africa Holds Key to Future of Global Higher Education

Updated: Jun 19

As demand for higher education surges worldwide, Africa's burgeoning youth population and expanding middle class position the continent at the forefront of the industry's growth and transformation, according to education leaders that gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on April 4-5, 2024 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

The Innovate Africa Conference was co-hosted by edtech entrepreneurs Gene Wade and Adah Ojile. Wade, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is the co-founder and CEO of NewUni. Ojile, the executive director of UPivotal, is an alum of the Kennedy School. In partnership with Harvard's Global Education Innovation Initiative, with faculty sponsorship from Dr. Fernando Reimers, the entrepreneurs convened university leaders, policymakers, private sector representatives, and students from Nigeria and the United States, to explore innovative models for expanding access to quality, affordable higher education in Africa and beyond. 

With 60% of Africa’s 1.4 billion people under age 25, it is the world's youngest continent and the only region where the youth population is still growing, according to United Nations data. At the same time, rising secondary school completion and a growing middle class have fueled demand for tertiary education that far outstrips current capacity.

"For every student admitted to a Nigerian university, two students are locked out of the opportunity for higher education simply because of capacity constraints," noted Professor Yakubu Ochefu, secretary general of the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities.

The widening gap between the demand and supply of university seats in Nigeria mirrors a challenge university trustees, presidents, and elected officials are facing in low and middle income countries 

And, contrary to our traditional impulse to solve this problem by building more universities, doing so is neither a viable, long-term investment nor an opportunity-driven plan of action to make higher education more accessible.

To put this in perspective, to meet the projected need for 373 million additional university seats globally by 2040, a new institution the size of the University of Texas would need to be built every day for the next 18 years, according to conference organizers. 

Fortunately, forward-thinking vice chancellors in Nigeria - home to one of Africa's largest economies and a population on track to become the world's third-largest by 2060 - are already pioneering new approaches.

"We must reimagine how to better utilize technology across countries and continents, and diversify platforms for delivering schooling and learning," said Wade. His new company, NewUni, partners with universities worldwide to deliver innovative and affordable certificate and degree programs.

At Federal University Oye Ekiti, Vice Chancellor Abayomi Fasina expanded enrollment from 15,000 to 40,000 students in just three years. Other Nigerian vice chancellors are forging industry partnerships to align curriculum with workforce needs, and are considering project-based and competency-based learning models to improve quality and affordability.

But experts cautioned that realizing the promise of innovation in tertiary education at scale will require re-thinking the basic architecture of our higher education models. As Jennifer Henry, co-founder and chief of strategy at NewUni pointed out, ”The world is not going to build a 40,000-student university every day for the next 18 years to meet the demand for higher education. We need models, like competency-based education, that are flexible on time and delivery but are uncompromising on learning outcomes."

"Given the opportunities, challenges, and potential unintended consequences associated with advancing U.S. best innovative practices in African countries like Nigeria, we should be mindful of the need to thoroughly document and assess from an R&D perspective the most and least impactful ideas," noted Dr. Thomas Stewart, Executive Vice President of the Cause Research Institute at National University. 

With the right investments and policy frameworks, however, leaders expressed optimism that Africa's higher education transformation could light the way for the rest of the world. "When universities educate more students, the graduates will join the ranks of the working and middle class in their respective regions. Economies will grow," said Adah Ojile, executive director of UPivotal. "It's our responsibility to make it accessible and affordable for all."

Gerard Robinson is a professor of practice at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. 

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