It’s no secret that one of the major demographic challenges the world will face before the turn of the next century is Africa’s rapid population growth. At the high end of the projections, the United Nations estimates that the number of people on the continent will rise from around 1.4 billion today to 2.5 billion in 2050 and 4.3 billion by 2100. This will see Africa’s share of the world’s population rise from less than one-fifth now to a full two-fifths.
These numbers are underpinned by an increase in Africa’s youth population that is already underway. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the number of under-25s is expected to increase by 21% to 860 million in the next 10 years alone. By 2050, the population of young Africans is expected to reach 1.1 billion: one in 10 of all people on the planet.
Such figures lead to a huge increase in the demand for higher education. But even now, African universities are barely admitting a trickle of the huge pool of talent available to them. The most recent figures from the World Bank show that just under 9% of school leavers in sub-Saharan Africa currently enter tertiary education, compared to a global average of around 35%. In North America, the figure is 84%.
Projections suggest that the number of young Africans in higher education will increase rapidly. For example, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis estimates that the number of over-15s in most sub-Saharan African countries who are educated at post-secondary level will rise from around 30 million in 2020 to over 90 million. by 2050 – with nearly 50 million of them in Nigeria alone.
But achieving these projections will require a huge effort from governments, colleges and universities to increase capacity. And population growth figures suggest this will still leave hundreds of millions without access to higher education.
In short, the challenge is breathtakingly large. And, as Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute, warns in his recent book tremor of youth many, if not all of the other major issues facing the world, from climate change to fighting the next pandemic, are inextricably linked to this rapidly expanding population of young people, making improving access to higher education on the continent an absolute necessity for all of humanity.
“I don’t think Africa’s development is possible without the development of these young people,” says Adam Habib, head of SOAS University London and former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, who adds that the whole world will “pay the consequences” if she does not solve the problem, given the “instability” that could result from failure.
Pauline Essah, director of research and insight at Education Sub-Saharan Africa (Essa) – a charity dedicated to improving education in the region by working with universities and colleges – agrees that the time n is not on the side of the world.
“The problem is not going away. He will grow. We are already very late. You may not see the same rate of increase from institutions [in Africa] to meet the demand, so something has to give,” she says.
One suggestion is that northern universities could help meet growing demand. But those in many developed countries seem to view Africa’s youth boom through one lens: as another international student recruitment market to tap into. In the UK, for example, international fees are usually double or even triple what a domestic student is charged.
A country targeted by the UK’s international education strategy is Nigeria. According to the latest immigration statistics from the Home Office, Africa’s most populous country had nearly 60,000 study visas issued in the year to March 2022 (about 30,000 not counting dependents), an incredible six-fold increase from the year before the pandemic and more than half the number issued to the UK’s two main source countries for students, India and China. But the number of students getting UK study visas in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa pales in comparison: only two countries, Ghana and Kenya, have seen the number of principal applicant visas exceed 1 000 in the same year.
Habib is scathing about the approach to high-fee countries like the UK. “Our demand for solidarity [with Africa] is…achieved by taking people and bringing them to the [Global] North and training them. We know it is a scam in the sense that it is a business transaction,” he says. "In what moral universe can you claim that you are trying to show solidarity…and make people pay [African students] three times the fees you would charge middle-class students in the UK?"
The result, he says, is that northern universities “end up recruiting, largely, the children of the elites.”
Daniel Haydon, Professor of Population Ecology and Epidemiology at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Glasgow Center for International.
The article was first published in The Times Higher Education formerly The Times Higher Education Supplement, a British magazine reporting specifically on news and issues related to higher education.