An entire continent without worthwhile access to education!



This December, I am supposed to be speaking on education in a summit in Africa. As I was researching on what to speak, I realized that while the entire world is leapfrogging to state-of-art technology to impart education to their children, there are a few unfortunate countries – rather, almost an entire continent – still struggling with blackboards and chalk pieces. On the one hand, developed nations are all set to impart knowledge through varied technology platforms, and are modernizing their syllabi to suit the new learning curves; on the other, we have Africa, a continent that has still not been able to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic to its children. The continent is still lagging behind the rest of the world in school enrollment – evidence to the fact that dramatic global improvements in education haven’t touched the continent yet. In the last 40 years, while most of the world improved its enrolment trends by leaps and bounds, Africa could only showcase discomforting educational profiles – only about half of Africa’s children are enrolled in primary schools, most drop out; and more than 60 per cent of the adults and over 50 per cent of women are rank illiterates!

With these kinds of figures, Africa doesn’t stand a chance to harness its human capital, leave aside meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

There are 15 countries (Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal and Somalia) with less than 50 per cent school enrolment rates – these have been targeted by the UN System-wide Special Initiative on Africa, by providing educational support for a ten year period. The focus on these 15 countries has become an imperative as their performance in education has been appalling. Enrolment of boys in these nations ranges from 23 per cent to 49 per cent and for girls the figure ranges from a pathetic 13 per cent to 31 per cent! The plan of action is being prepared separately for each country taking into account the fundamental problems of educational access for each of them. The mesh of problems includes very poor students-to-teacher ratio, unqualified teachers and poor provision of text books. This has engendered poor learning methods and poor learning accomplishments. Further, the apathetic governments are doing little to bridge the rural-urban divide and the gender gap (In a set of 19 African countries, female literacy was found to be below 30 per cent). The penetration of educational institutions in rural areas has been a major blotch – with figures suggesting that more than 80 per cent of children without the access of education live in the rural areas. The widespread HIV (even amongst children) epidemic in mostly rural belts has spelled its curse on education too. Western and Central Africa is the worst hit with food crisis, epidemics, violent conflicts, and natural disasters – all have a cascading effect on enrolment rates. On top of that various social taboos and ills, like early marriages, sexual aggression on women and early pregnancies have contributed to gender disparity on education. The little rise in enrolment rates among children is often offset by poor retention rates and early dropouts.

Yes, rising enrolment in higher education lately has been a silver lining for Africa. At present, there are 4 million students pursuing higher education in the continent – that figure can’t be compared when viewed relative to other developing regions in Asia and Latin America. But even among the students pursuing higher education in Africa, there is a low Students’ Course Completion Rate as pursuing education becomes unaffordable to many and hence they drop out. The dropouts are becoming more common because of budget constraints – because unlike in the past, the impoverished African states cannot finance the educational programs anymore; as a result of which, they are increasingly getting dependant on IMF, which puts forward the capitalistic conditions of cost sharing. This is increasing the number of students who need to self-finance themselves! Sensing the opportunity, private players have started mushrooming; with more than 450 ‘private’ colleges and universities in the continent today. In spite of this progress, the millions in need cannot avail of this opportunity as the cost for such programs is beyond their affordability. Besides the high cost of private education, ‘donations’ are also rampant across Africa. Around 90 per cent of parents in Morocco for example pay extra money to get their children admitted to schools.

Global forums viz, the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF and the UNDP are helping African countries in their sector investment programmes (SIPs) with a focus on achieving universal primary education. To help this cause, Norway has set up a trust worth $7 million to support the SIPs in various countries. Add to this, the UNDP has come out to support African education as well. Ethiopia has been a major beneficiary with assistance from UNESCO and World Bank and was able to manage around 75 per cent of the $1.5 billion needed for its SIP aimed at education; for the rest, 15 multilateral and bilateral donors have contributed $500 million to complete the Education Sector Development Program initiated in 1997-98 as a formulation of SIP. Senegal too has taken steps in improving primary education with a ten year program supported by UNDP. Mozambique has drafted a 5 year education strategy; while Zimbabwe has called for a similar program by UNESCO and UN. Similar SIP formulations are underway in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ghana, Mauritius, and Malawi. These and similar programs unleash new hope for education in Africa – especially if the challenges are tackled by the respective governments.

Amidst all African nations, Tanzania needs a special mention here. There was no dearth in the policies adopted by the government to refurbish their dented political image, but the policies thus designed were half-baked and did more harm than good. Being one of the least developed countries in Africa, Tanzania suffers from myriad social woes. The schooling system had adopted English as their compulsory teaching language and made it a mandatory subject. However, the trainers/teachers available are neither well versed with the language nor with the subjects. The state of English-speaking teachers at the primary level is horrible – this eventually affects the entire education ladder. Students who get promoted at higher levels enter the class without prior preparation and with low proficiency in English. The same is true even for private schools as well. Amidst all these gloomy situations, the Primary Education Development Plan (PDEP; adopted in 2002-2006) and the Secondary Education Development Plan (SEDP; Implemented in 2004) increased the gross enrollment ratios. But then, the number of students passing out remained constant and didn’t match the expectation of the plans. Tanzanian education policies are designed to allow the nation to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of free primary education for all children by 2015, but then the loopholes and faulty service delivery systems are producing pseudo-educated students. Yet, the compulsory seven years’ education norms have increased the enrolment ratio and today more than 90 per cent of children go to the schools. Overall too, despite the drawbacks, the plan and policies look quite impressive, so much so that on an average most of the children between the age of seven and 13 are in schools. But that’s where it ends, as only 9 per cent of all these children go on to secondary schools – as only primary education for first seven years is free. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) statistics states that between 2005 to 2009, around 83 per cent of children completed primary school but only a very small portion went on to complete secondary education.

The dropout rate is also quite high especially in case of girl students. As most of girls get married at an early age, they are not able to continue their education. The number of primary school dropouts rose to 44,742 in 2006 from 32,469 in 2005 – and most of this was on account of early pregnancies. Shortage of teachers, leave alone the issue of ‘qualified’ teachers, and lack of learning material act as major impediments for schools in rural areas. A survey conducted by Tanzania Uwezo Institute in 2010 revealed that students of schools in 38 districts who completed the seventh grade cannot read even a standard two English book. The teacher-student ratio in rural schools is high at 1:54 (which goes up to 1:91 in some areas), compared to 1:34 in urban schools.

Kenya, which shares its border with Tanzania suffers similar problems. Kenya adopted a free education policy a decade back to encourage primary education among its people. But then, like other African nations, many socio-economic problems loomed over the nation and deterred people from sending their kids to schools. More than 1.5 million children are still out of schools and most of these out-of-school children are either employed as child labour or are doing absolutely nothing. Kenya, like a couple of other African nations, provided eight years of free universal primary education, but then these schools do not take care of other peripherals needed for proper schooling. The law only waives off the tuition fees and not the entire expenditure on schooling. Expensive uniform and books keep many children miles away from schools. Even if a family manages to send their children to these schools for the first eight years, they find it extremely tough to continue the education. Since the secondary schooling is extremely expensive, only a small fraction of students opts for the same. More than 300,000 students drop out of schools every year after completing the first eight years and another 100,000 find no seats in institutions of higher learning! This is evident from the fact that that there are only 4,250 secondary schools in Kenya compared to 18,900 primary schools. The country not only faces a shortage of schools, but the schools also face a shortage of classrooms. In 2008, researches estimated that the nation needed around 4,000 new classrooms at secondary school level alone.

Like Tanzania, Kenya also faces problems on quality of education. In 2009, the National Assessment Centre found that 30 per cent of children of standard 5 cannot do simple mathematical calculations. Early marriages and pregnancies also are prime factors which lead to absenteeism among students. Even the youth who complete education find it tough to get a job in the market (due to sub-standard education) and eventually resort to drugs and crime, for fast money. Education in Kenya is confined to a few affluent families and higher education is kept more elite. Such a selective education system has negatively affected the economy of the nation. Shortage of human capital is not allowing the economy to flourish. According to UNESCO, the average contact hours in Kenya’s primary schools are the lowest in the world, where a fraction of the complete syllabus meant for that particular schooling year is imparted. Adding to the woes is corruption that is haunting the entire system. As recent as in June 2011, Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta revealed that over 4.2 billion Kenyan shillings ($46 million) “was missing from the Ministry of Education” that was meant for free primary education and which was enough to educate 4 million children free of cost for a year.

Following the trend, the next country in line is Mali. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the children in Mali live in the most inhuman conditions. Most of the children in the nation suffer from one or the other disease. Around 80 per cent of children are anaemic. Thus, even if they make it to the school, they find it tough to concentrate and be regular. To top it, the absence of proper teaching resources and near-collapse of infrastructure make a conducive learning environment impossible. Most of children fail to get promoted to higher standard at primary level itself. Only half of the entire strength in a school manages to get promoted to the next level, thus increasing the teacher to student ratio every year at primary level. However extra budgetary allocations over the decades have improved the quality of resources needed for education; yet, the quality of teaching has remained same. The problem in Mali is just like that in Tanzania and Kenya, where families find it tough to afford education and related paraphernalia. As per government estimates of 2010, only 35 per cent of the children at primary level would have been able to make it to secondary level.

It requires no empirical research to conclude that the life is hard in sub-Saharan Africa – abject poverty, AIDS epidemic, violent civil wars, and of course illiteracy. However, the root of all evils is illiteracy and lack of education, due to which 650 million Africans in 50 countries currently don’t stand a chance to remove human rights abuses, economic impoverishment and healthcare misfortunes, to mention a few. Successive dictatorial regimes and embezzlement of foreign aid have made the situation worse. The literacy rate improvement in the last 2 decades has been modicum and uneven, and in no way commensurate to the United Nation’s goal of “Education for All” by 2015! Certain countries have fared reasonably well like Botswana, Mauritius, and South Africa; achieving more than 75 per cent of adult literacy. But there are many other nations with an unfocused education objective. Countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and many others have a literacy rate that is less than 20 per cent!

The lackluster performance of the federal governments in most sub-Saharan nations has prompted the international community to encourage the stakeholders to link educational efforts with other apparently necessary initiatives like healthcare, agricultural procurements, and micro-credit access. After all, education is imperative to manage local crop markets, easing trade, running small businesses and grassroots level governance. Therefore it makes sense too, to link educational initiatives with local development initiatives. The stakes are high – as failing to educate its people can augur disaster for Africa in terms of poverty and economic stagnation – and its tortuous implication will have an extremely high human, social and economic cost. Apart from basic human catastrophes, Africa will be increasingly marginalized in this age of globalization and knowledge based economies. The power regimes that run most African States – where outright dictatorship or at most quasi-democracy is in place – are not overtly anxious to spread literacy – it is relatively easier to rule illiterate people, as the chance of resistance and intellectual debate of faulty policies is less! Being in power is the prima facie reason for most African rulers to keep their population illiterate. Further, knee-deep into debt, these impoverished states face harmful economic sanctions and financial pressures from IMF, so much so that they pay on an average four times the amount on debt servicing than that on education – this has been the situation even in the previous decade; sub-Saharan countries in the decade ending in 1996 spent 0.7 per cent less on education because of IMF regulations. Thus a huge amount of money that can be otherwise used for education is being redirected to the coffers of IMF.

There is no doubt that education brings in higher earnings and increases labour market participation. In Zimbabwe, school fee had touched a figure of $96 per term in 2007 while some elite residential private primary schools were and are charging over $10,000 a term. In Ghana for example, with the average tax rate being 31 per cent on earning, the masses are left with peanuts for spending on education – even after researches have proven that the completion of primary schooling ushers in a 14 per cent increase in earnings. Similarly, in Kenya the average cost of illiteracy is 6.7 per cent of income. The value of losses to Kenya’s GDP from 2000-2020 have hovered around a massive 20-30 per cent because of Kenya’s failure to educate its people. In South Africa, the cost to the economy has been estimated to be around 550 billion rand due to failed educational initiatives. The figure is the gap between what the illiterate South Africans would have earned had they been educated and what they are earning now. Therefore, the micro-economic cost of illiteracy is significant – and the time is running out – the African leaders have to pull up their socks quickly.

Improving education would not only help the domestic market but also the international markets. Of course, dictatorial regimes need to be overthrown; but above all, the developed nations must ensure that instead of pumping in loans (that has attached interests), they should partner with local authorities and set up hundreds of free primary schools. Scholarships at secondary and tertiary levels would also make the condition better. These countries should tie-up with foreign universities and sign exchange programs at all academic levels. But before all this, all social problems that force parents to keep their children at home need to be addressed (early marriage, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS). An educated and endowed Africa would not only act as a global hub but would also help the West in exploiting African resources in a more economically and technologically advanced manner. The equation is even and simple – what the world needs to do is merely balance both sides! This is what I plan to say in simple words when I speak in Africa in December this year. And I hope the words matter to those who listen.

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