Journal Issue

Focus on Africa Educational Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Problems and possible solutions

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1988
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Peter R. Moock and Dean T. Jamison

Since their independence, the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa have invested heavily in education and achieved impressive gains in a number of areas. Over 1960–83 the gross primary enrollment ratio in the region increased from 36 to 75 percent, and the secondary enrollment ratio rose from 3 to 20 percent. Adult literacy rates increased from around 10 to 42 percent, and the average number of years of education of the working-age population more than tripled—from about 1 year in 1970 to 3.3 years in 1983.

These remarkable advances in African education are now seriously threatened by the region’s recent economic decline and explosive population growth (see article by Birdsall and Sai, in this issue). Just to maintain school-participation rates at their 1983 levels, primary-school places would have to increase from 51.3 million to 90.7 million, and secondary school places from 11.1 million to 19.7 million, by the year 2000. The need for rapid expansion of education, and for improvement of its quality, comes at a time when economic difficulties have led to significant reduction of public spending in most countries of the region. Recurrent public expenditure on education, for example, declined from $10 billion in 1980 to $8.9 billion in 1983.

Yet, extensive experience from Africa and elsewhere strongly indicates that increased investments in education and training at this stage in Africa’s history would yield very broad economic benefits in terms of increased labor productivity, economic growth, and reduced fertility rates. A recent macroeconomic analysis, for example, found that investments in education account for more than 30 percent of GDP growth in 31 African countries studied over 1965–81. Moreover, there is a strong relationship between women’s education and the number of children each woman has during her lifetime—the higher the education level, the fewer the children. Thus, high economic returns can be expected from continued investments in Africa’s education sector.

This article is based on a World Bank Policy Study Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Policies for Adjustment, Revitalization, and Expansion (1988).

Key problems

The principal problems in African education today are stagnating enrollments and declining quality. Total enrollments in Sub-Saharan Africa grew at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent during 1960–70 and 8.9 percent during 1970–80, but over 1980–83 the rate of increase dropped to 4.2 percent. This decline, affecting all levels of education, is most pronounced at the primary level, where the annual rate of growth fell from 8.4 percent during 1970–80 to 2.9 percent over 1980–83—well below the projected growth of the school-age population.

To some extent, deceleration of the rate of expansion is a natural outgrowth of the extraordinary increases in enrollment in the 1960s and 1970s. However, declines in enrollment also reflect the current economic situation. Children who might have attended school in better times are kept out or pulled out to help work at home. In addition, many countries have introduced or raised fees just as family income has dropped, and for families the benefits of education, especially education of inferior quality, may have fallen as a result of the recent economic stagnation.

Complicating the problem of stagnant enrollments is the poor quality of education in Africa. Levels of educational achievement among African students appear low by world standards, and there is some suggestion of further recent declines. Much of the evidence is indirect, such as the critically low (and declining) levels of key inputs (especially books and other learning materials) relative to other inputs (notably teachers and physical facilities).

Policy issues

Undesirably low levels of enrollment and quality can result from two causes: (1) internal inefficiency, that is, the education system makes poor use of available resources; and (2) a lack of resources or inadequate finance. In Sub-Saharan Africa, both factors are operative.

Primary education. Poor quality of primary education is a serious matter—because primary education is the only formal education that most of today’s African children can ever hope to receive, and because it plays a major role in determining the quality of all subsequent education. In the countries where educational standards have deteriorated the most, the choice between expansion and quality has almost disappeared. Without basic inputs, particularly textbooks and instructional materials, almost no learning occurs. Beyond that, countries must find an appropriate balance between quality, initial enrollments, and the average number of years of schooling completed per enrollee.

A review of possible measures for improving the quality of primary education leads to two broad conclusions:

• The provision of instructional materials, particularly textbooks, is the most cost-effective way of improving the quality of primary education. These materials are effective in raising test scores. Teachers’ guides and other materials designed to assist under-qualified teachers in organizing classroom activities could also prove to be especially cost-effective. Intensive use of “interactive” radio (where students are actively involved in the learning process rather than simply listening to lectures), school feeding and health programs (to combat malnutrition and debilitating illnesses, which interfere with a child’s ability to learn), and strengthened examination systems also could improve educational quality at reasonable cost.

• Some investments are not likely to have a noticeable effect on primary school quality in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite their potentially high cost. Among other things, these investments are often aimed at reducing class size, providing primary teachers with more than a general secondary education or intensive educational instruction; constructing high-quality buildings; and introducing classroom television or computers.

In general, there is little likelihood of a significant reduction in recurrent costs at the primary level, especially if countries hope also to improve the quality of education, since the current expenditures per pupil are already very low in absolute terms and relative to other developing regions. Thus, further growth of primary education will require, inevitably, the mobilization of additional resources, either by increasing the total revenues available to the education sector or by reallocating funds within the sector in favor of the primary level.

Secondary education and training. The biggest challenge for secondary education is to satisfy the burgeoning demand for the limited number of secondary school places. Given the current economic climate, a prerequisite to expansion will be rigorous cost control.

Secondary education in Africa is often expensive, in both absolute and relative terms. In 1983, public recurrent expenditure per secondary-level student in the median African country was 62 percent of per capita GDP, or $223 (four times the primary level cost).

There is substantial potential in most African countries for reducing secondary-level unit costs by improving efficiency within the existing system, through more effective utilization of teachers and capital. For example, the median student-teacher ratio in African secondary schools is 23:1, compared with 39:1 in primary schools. Policies to increase the student-teacher ratio at the secondary level—by increasing class size and teaching loads, through double shifts and longer school years, and through multi-subject specialization of teachers—could substantially reduce unit costs.

There is additional potential for sharp reductions in unit costs through greater reliance on “distance education” and a transition from a system of heavily subsidized boarding schools, where these are prevalent, to a system of day schools. Distance education takes two forms: (1) self-study schools, supervised by community members without expensive teachers’ qualifications; and (2) extension programs, which typically rely heavily on printed materials and do not normally bring students into supervised classrooms. Distance education has helped to increase opportunities for secondary education in Malawi and Zambia.

Beyond general support for expanding access to secondary education, African governments should seek to remedy existing inequities in school participation. Females, for example, account for only 34 percent of secondary-school students. Families are prepared to send girls more readily to small, community-based schools than to larger schools located in urban centers and at greater average distances from home, and these local schools may be no more expensive than larger schools if the latter include boarding facilities and the smaller schools do not.

The relevance of secondary-school curricula to the needs of individual societies must also be addressed. International experience shows that a strong general education, which schools provide efficiently, greatly enhances an individual’s future ability to benefit from training. It also shows that job-specific training is very important. In many African countries, however, the per-student cost of specialized vocational education provided in schools has been at least twice that of general education, yet the employment and earnings experience of graduates of the two systems has been much the same. Thus, there is an urgent need to review existing vocational school programs and to consider the feasibility of various alternatives, including on-the-job training, other in-service skills development programs, and industrial training centers.

Given the large unmet demand for secondary-school education, a natural starting point for promoting future growth of such education is to raise student fees, with scholarships provided to talented low-income students. A recent study in Malawi concluded that the 1982 fee, which covered about 40 percent of costs at the time, could be increased significantly and schools charging the fee would still meet an unfilled demand, and that an additional 5,000–11,000 secondary places could be financed by raising fees. Governments may also be able to expand secondary enrollments without increasing the burden on the public budget by becoming more tolerant of private alternatives to public education, including fully and semi-autonomous community schools and those sponsored by religious groups, labor organizations, and business enterprises.

Higher education. Preparing and supporting people in positions of responsibility—in government, business, and the professions—is the central and essential role of African universities. In numbers, at least, the universities have risen impressively to this challenge. Enrollments grew from 21,000 in 1960 to more than 430,000 in 1983.

Principal recommendations for improving African education

• Increase total (public plus private) education expenditures.

• Assure the availability of nonsalary recurrent inputs, particularly textbooks and other instructional materials.

• Reduce unit costs of secondary and higher education, including through greater reliance on self-study programs.

• Restore and strengthen the quality and efficiency of institutions of higher education, and reduce the financial drain on such institutions imposed by income transfers to students.

• Strengthen management accountability, including through increased use of achievement testing systems.

• Develop country-specific packages of policies containing three strategic elements— adjustment (through diversified finance and cost containment), revitalization (through provision of books and supplies, achievement testing, and maintenance of facilities), and selective expansion.

• Provide external aid to African education in support of policy packages, and increase the volume of such aid.

Higher education’s contribution to development in Africa is now being threatened, however, by three interrelated weaknesses. First, the quality of graduates in many countries has deteriorated. One aspect of this problem is over-enrollment in less rigorous fields of study. Another, in the face of economic difficulties, is the virtual disappearance from higher educational institutions in many African countries of necessary inputs, such as spare parts for equipment, laboratory supplies, and multiple copies of textbooks, journals, and monographs in university libraries. Second, the cost per student of higher public education is exorbitant: about 60 times that of primary education. In Asia and Latin America, by comparison, the per-student cost of higher education is 10 to 15 times higher than the cost per elementary student. Third, higher education, including student living costs, is entirely financed out of the public budget. As a result, resources are inefficiently allocated, and income inequality is increased (since higher income families are more likely to send their children to college).

To address these weaknesses at the national level, higher education policy reform should have three objectives: (1) an improvement in quality, most immediately through provision of critically needed teaching and research materials; (2) an increase in efficiency by reducing unit costs through an increase in the number of pupils per academic staff member, a reduction in the number of nonacademic staff, a meaningful reduction in low-priority courses and specializations, an increase in the hours per week and weeks per year that academic staff and physical facilities are used, an expansion of access for part-time, fee-paying students, and the introduction of self-study methods; and (3) partial budgetary relief of the burden of financing higher education, by allowing the establishment of private institutions and by introducing fees, initially for noninstructional services and later for tuition. Since improvements in quality will be expensive, the implementation of policies to achieve the latter two objectives will, almost everywhere in Africa, be a prerequisite for freeing the resources needed to achieve the first.

Management. Although stagnating enrollment and low quality can ultimately be traced to demographic and economic problems, they are exacerbated (and their resolution hampered) by the inefficient use of available resources, as reflected in the widespread underutilization of facilities, the high levels of absenteeism of teachers and students, and a general lack of order and discipline. Administrative and logistical infrastructure originally created for education systems of limited size is incapable of coping with the vastly expanded systems of today.

Four main factors shape managerial performance and, therefore, deserve to be improved: the management and organizational structure itself; the student testing, general statistical and accounting systems that provide information to managers; the analytical capacity that generates and evaluates options for managers at all levels, but particularly at the policy level; and the quality and training of managerial staff.

Agenda for action

Country circumstances differ widely, and appropriate policy reforms will vary from country to country. Nevertheless, it will typically be valuable for African countries to take steps to formulate and implement internally coherent sets of policies that address their own problems in education and training. Each country-specific package needs to concentrate, to different degrees, on three distinct areas for action:

• Adjustment to today’s mounting economic and demographic pressures. This can be achieved by diversification of the sources of educational finance, through increased cost-sharing in public education and increased official tolerance of private educational services; and by rigorous control of costs.

• Revitalization of the educational infrastructure to restore quality. This will involve the increased availability of textbooks and learning materials; a renewed commitment to academic standards, mainly by strengthening examination systems; and greater investment in operational expenditures and maintenance of physical plant and equipment.

• Selective expansion. Educational expansion will only be attractive after measures of adjustment and revitalization have begun to take hold, and it should be concentrated in a few areas, including programs aimed at: (1) universal primary education; (2) distance education for increasing post-primary enrollment; and (3) training for adult workers. The rapid transition in Africa from colonial status to self-government to participation in the international arena was possible only because African educational systems produced people to replace expatriates at all levels. Turning out leaders who can address the increasingly complex tasks of nation-building is the continuing responsibility of African education. In addition, Africa’s stock of human capital will determine whether the continent can harness the explosion of scientific and technical knowledge for Africa’s benefit. When all the benefits of education are considered, the case for mobilizing additional resources to support schooling and training is compelling, even in this period of unusual scarcity.

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