Why Africa needs it's own 'Ivy League' College

Billions in aid are spent in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to prevent infant mortality and give the poorest children a chance at life. A noble cause and one any parent would be eternally grateful. However take a look at youth prospects and you may question the quality of life some of these children can expect as adults. Youth unemployment rates are sky-high; 50% in South Africa40% in Kenya and DRC. In Nigeria 30 million youth are jobless. These terrifying numbers belie uglier trends with higher levels of underemployment and vulnerable employment. The ILO estimate 247 million workers are in vulnerable employment. In response to an ad for 100 drivers, Dangote Group, a conglomerate received 13,000 applicants including 8,460 with bachelor degrees, 704 Masters and 6 Ph.D’s. With a youth population expected to double by 2045, this poses a potential time bomb. One need only look North for a forewarning. 

Financial Times and Economist subscribers may be forgiven for thinking all was well. Africa is receiving record foreign investments, has some of the highest growth rates and as a consequence has multinational firms rushing in to cater to a burgeoning middle class. However there is a growing sense even this isn’t creating enough jobs for millions hitting the labour market.There are two ways of looking at this, the economy’s demand for labour isn’t sufficiently strong to generate enough jobs because growth simply isn’t fast enough and/or the sectors which are growing are not labour intensive. The second is a supply side hypothesis which says there are fundamental issues with the education graduates are receiving which isn’t preparing them adequately for the future. Both are true, but it is the latter we will turn because it can influence both.

African universities are creating an army of job seekers rather than creators, an unsustainable trend with such a high volume churned out annually. Economics 101 suggests investing in your ‘human capital’ will increase your expected returns however higher education does not appear to be correlated with higher employment. 19% of Ugandan graduates were unemployed, for secondary leavers it was 7%. Nigerian graduates were 5% less likely to be employed than those with basic education. Puzzlingly the market isn’t rewarding those with ‘higher’ skills. The ‘foreign student market’ tells a similar tale. The wealthy have long lost faith in local universities. Students from SSA are the most mobile globally,with 1 out of every 16 studying abroad. Some countries have more students abroad than at home. In Cape Verde, 6% of the university-aged are enrolled, but this would double if students abroad were counted. Botswana enrolment would rise from 6% to 11%. Nigerian students are estimated to spend $500 million annually in Western universities, a staggering 70% of the national university budget.

It’s not just students who have fled. Estimates are half the continent’s researchers are in Europe, driven abroad by poor facilities and salaries up to 20 times lower. Unsurprisingly the output of research is amongst the lowest globally. In 1995, SSA published 5,839 papers. Only the Middle East produced fewer, yet it managed to double its output, while SSA rose by a third.

Drained of skilled manpower and funds the relevance of degrees to the economy and indeed holders is questionable.  A University of Nairobi student interviewed by CNN summed it up:

“If the market is way beyond your education level, there won’t be productivity. We need to change everything about the education system. I cannot…study a book that was published in 1969…in 2012.” A former head of an Egyptian university who became a minister was reportedly shocked when he discovered the ‘products’ of his erstwhile institution; historians and sociologists were unemployable due to the irrelevance of their skills for employers.

What’s gone wrong? To start investment has not kept up with the growth of students. Between 1991 and 2006, the number of students in higher education exploded from 2.7 million to 9.3 million, a growth of 16% annually, but expenditure only grew by 6%. Investment has remained at20% of educational budgets. Funding from international donors concentrated on basic education believing this was the best way to alleviate poverty. This shifted funds away from universities and led to a deluge of students admitted straining resources further. 17% of the World Bank’s global educational spending used to be on higher education, but this declined to 7%. The loss of fees and political pressure from elites (to reform) and academic brain drain has not helped. With high levels of graft it is questionable whether earmarked funds are actually spent on education, as much as 80% of budgets may be leaked between ministries and schools.

Left to the establishment, the medicine for this diagnosis would be increased funding to higher education and this undoubtedly needs to be a significant part of any solution. The problem with this approach is it involves working within the same institutions and old vested interests. Giving a campus a lick of paint and new computers isn’t going to suddenly persuade the wealthy this is a viable alternative or attract leading scholars given intense global competition for the best students and staff. 

A more radical proposal is needed to give a massive jolt to tertiary education on the continent. Africa needs to build herself an ‘ivy league’institution. The United States is what it is today in large part because it advances the most revolutionary science and is home to ground-breaking firms. Institutions like Stanford and MIT have been instrumental to this process by attracting the brightest from across the globe to solve the hardest problems.

Africa needs such an elite institution. One that will attract leading scholars and train students in critical thinking and skills society’s need, from technology start-ups to curing tropical diseases. An institution that will attract bright children of the elite and so reverse capital flight and invest in an endowment to sponsor the less privileged. Somewhere with the gravitas of any elite college, where alumni wear its name like a badge of honour. Perhaps most importantly somewhere that can act as a beacon of excellence for others colleges on the continent – that will train the next set of academics from Malawi to Mali and put a halt to the brain drain.



The most prestigious African journals are published in Oxford and Yale but shouldn’t they be in Nairobi and Windhoek too. How useful is cutting edge economic research that flits between scholars in Washington DC and Oxford for the policy maker in Ouagadougou? Research into tropical diseases, agriculture and public policy should be on the continent too so they can work with professionals at the coalface. So fieldwork and discovery involve speaking to people around you rather than a trip in an exotic clime. For too long the discourse on African development has been dictated to it externally. An elite institution can start to change this by offering home-grown alternative solutions. This isn’t to exclude others but to give a voice to an African institution on home soil in the debate. 

There are many who will doubt the wisdom of spending millions on one when it could be disbursed amongst many.  Fortunately the evidence from elite institutions elsewhere are plain to see. Stanford’s alumni have founded companies that generate more than $2.7 trillion in annual revenue, equivalent to the 10th largest economy in the world. MIT’s alumni have sales of $2 trillion, the 11th largest economy and over 2 million jobs created. Crucially these benefits are spread nationally and globally highlighting the wide reaching impact.

The battleground of the future will be fought on ideas and technology. Countries are responding by investing in institutions modelled on the world’s best. Qatar invited and funded Georgetown and Cornell to set up satellite campuses in Doha. KAUST in Saudi Arabia opened in 2009 with a$10 billion endowment and has recruited its leaders from institutions like Caltech (the top ranked university globally). China is investing $250bn a year in building out a world-class education system and indeed the rise of Asia has been accompanied by a corresponding rise to prominence of Asian universities. Currently only one University in Africa-Cape Town sits in the top 200 globally.

Undoubtedly turning this into reality would be immensely challenging. Hundreds of millions would need to be raised potentially at the expense of other just and pressing causes. In a continent rich with diversity satisfying a majority would be near impossible. A regional institution may be more feasible than continent wide. With intense global competition for the best students and researchers it is hardly a foregone conclusion target audiences will come rushing in. Building a gleaming campus is one thing but a reputation for excellence is a long-term project.

Despite the challenges, this is a project worth striving for. In a global marketplace where human capital is increasingly the differentiator, Africa needs its own incubator of ideas to compete and kick-start the reform of higher education. Every day seems to bring a newly minted billionaire with grand philanthropic ventures.  Well for any listening here is a project that can make a real sustainable difference to billions, one with a lasting legacy for unborn Africans to come.


A version of this article was published by Think Africa Press