Africa’s Booming Private Universities Business Attracts Investors

Written by Kevin Mwanza

At the dawn of independence, in 1960, there were only seven private universities in Africa, according to Olugbemiro Jegede, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities.

That number slowly rose to 27 by 1990 and by 2006 about 22 percent of students who enrolled for higher learning on the continent were going to private institutions, BDlive reported.

Over the period (1990-2006), Africa saw an average six percent increase in investment in public universities, with enrollment to tertiary institutions growing at nearly 16 percent each year to reach 9.3 million fro 2.7 million, according to a 2010 World Bank report.

Africa’s fast growing population, which is forecast to reach 6.1 billion people by the close of this century (representing 40 percent of the world’s population),  has the highest number of youth composition.

This has led to a high demand for tertiary education even as supply of public institutions across the continent has stagnated due to poor planning by many governments.

The United Nations estimates that the number of Africans under the age of 18 may swell to about 1-billion by 2050.

According to Professor Phillip Clay, a former chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Africa had fewer than 2,000 colleges and universities for a population of 1-billion people in 55 countries, while the US alone had more than 4,000 institutions for 320-million people.

“Less than seven percent percent of Africans have college degrees compared to 30 percent of North Americans and Europeans,” Clay wrote in an opinion piece published by The Guardian.

“More than half of Africa’s population is under the age of 30. This is either a demographic dividend, if the talent is developed, or a demographic curse if the next generation is large, economically marginal and unable to do the work of advanced economies,” he added.

The sector is now generating a groundswell of interest from investors.

Private Universities Business

Entrepreneurs like Fred Swaniker, who co-founded the African Leadership University (ALU), plan to expand their expand their institutions across the continent, building 25 universities in the next 25-30 years that will educate more than 250,000 student at any one time.

Swaniker, told ‘How we made it in Africa‘ in December, that ALU had opened a campus in Mauritius last year and was planning to open two more in Rwanda and Nigeria this year.

“I believe the only way we will bring out our full potential is by developing the intellectual and human capabilities we have,” Swaniker said.

“So just looking at the massive shortage of tertiary education on the continent… we need a radical and innovative solution that can help increase the number of [higher education graduates] who can really help drive innovation within healthcare, education, infrastructure, technology, and all the different things we need to do throughout Africa.”

Other private universities in Africa that have attracted investors interest include Lancaster University in Ghana (a “branch campus” of the UK institution supported by Trans National Education), Asheshi University in Ghana, the British University in Egypt and the United States International University in Kenya.

All these were established in the past decade.

There are however questions over the mushrooming of for-profit ran private universities across the continent and how this could affect the quality of graduates being supplied to the job market.

“Public institutions are scrambling for money. They are also crammed to capacity and simply cannot cater for the growing number of young Africans who want a university degree,” Akanimo Odon, a honorary fellow at Lancaster University, said in an opinion piece published by The Conversation.