Still barriers to higher education for African students
12 October 2011
By Sophie Goodchild
Higher education in Africa has expanded massively over the past decade - but significant inequalities remain, shows a recently completed study by the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex.
The study, funded by the ESRC and the Department for International Development, focused on university education in Ghana and Tanzania, where policies have been introduced to support increased enrolment and broader participation at degree level. It set out to establish if students from under-represented groups are benefitting from these new initiatives.
The researchers, led by Professor Louise Morley, developed 100 'Equity Scorecards' to measure progress in three areas: access to higher education, the retention of students, and their achievements such as completing a degree course. They used these to present the statistical data obtained from public and private universities, as well as interviewing 200 students and 200 staff and policymakers about their experiences.
Findings show that higher education remains elitist, with the majority of students completing higher education in these two countries coming from economically privileged segments of society.
Gender was a key issue. For example, even though affirmative action programmes have been set up to encourage women into science, women choosing science degrees were often from privileged backgrounds. Women also reported sexual harassment, with male tutors pressuring them into sex in return for good grades.
Students from low socio-economic backgrounds were under-represented on all programmes - and in some cases absent altogether. The researchers warn that schemes to assist young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education are not working, and that this group must be targeted more effectively.
Disabled students fared badly in terms of support and facilities. Age was also a barrier to accessing higher education. There were significant differences between universities in the numbers of mature students they enrolled, and predominantly male and wealthy students were favoured. Mature students were most at risk of dropping out of their courses.
Professor Morley said universities must examine their admissions criteria, the design of programmes and how they are promoted to under-represented groups. "They need robust management information data to evaluate what’s really going on, not just people’s impressions of change," she says.
"This is especially true with gender where some policies have been implemented, but these have ignored the link between gender and poverty for example."
The data collected by the University of Sussex researchers during their research has had a considerable impact. One of the case study universities in Ghana has now introduced a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment, and the University of Dar es Salaam has introduced a new policy to support students with disabilities.