FILE - Second-year civil engineering student and first-time voter Nkululeko Simelane poses for a picture at Wits University in Johannesburg, April 22, 2014.
FILE - Second-year civil engineering student and first-time voter Nkululeko Simelane poses for a picture at Wits University in Johannesburg, April 22, 2014.

JOHANNESBURG - Academics from around the continent have converged in Johannesburg for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today, like brain drains, funding, how to improve research and how to develop cities draw in more students.

Africa's quest for development would not be complete, academics say, without a hard look at the continent's burgeoning — and struggling — higher education system.

Academics who gathered this week at the University of Johannesburg say that from the Cape to Cairo, a lack of funding, poor infrastructure and excessive demand make the task of educating Africa's students harder than it has to be.

For engineering professor David Mfinanga, a vice chancellor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the main problem is the sheer numbers.

Funding challenges 

"Most countries are trying to increase the number of graduates because it is important for economic development," he said. "But the resources are limited, so that affects quality as well, and therefore we are struggling to balance the two because you need the quantity, you need more graduates, but you need to maintain the quality, and the resources are limited."

Pinkie Mekgwe, an administrator at the University of Johannesburg, says schools face another problem: money.

Like many American universities, she says, African universities struggle for funding. But unlike their American counterparts, many African institutions cannot rely on tuition to fill that gap. The 2009 global economic crisis also tightened African governments’ belts, she says — and universities have suffered.

“We’ve seen some of the funding from governments being shaved off, going down, and institutions that had to find ways of looking for alternatives, making up for this lack, and so that, I would say, is a much more generalized but very, very important, you could say, even fundamental problem and issue for the development of higher education," he said.

Mfinanga says advocating for higher education can be an uphill battle on a continent that often struggles with graver problems like war, famine, poverty and political instability. But, he says, a better standard of university education holds the solution to many of those problems.

"You cannot have development without creating knowledge and transferring knowledge," he said. "If you look at most countries that are developed, they are well known for the quality of their universities and graduates, and the number of their graduates."

Expanding job opportunities

But, says Ousmane Sene, director of the Senegal-based West African Research Center, governments also need to look at the end result of churning out university graduates. If they don't expand employment opportunities, government could exacerbate the very problems education seeks to address.

"What are you going to do with that if they just get out of university and they are out of a job? Because this is a real threat, this is a real conflict-ridden situation in Africa, having these thousands and thousands of graduates, postgraduate students, qualified, with plenty of degrees, expecting everything from society, and spending years milling around without getting a decent job, that's a real problem," he said.

None of these challenges will be solved overnight. But African academics say they are no less urgent than many of the continent's other pressing problems — and, in this case, solving the problem may help solve others.