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The future of higher education - Is it worth it?

An opinion piece by Venita Januarie – Stellenbosch, South Africa

When considering our futures, education has always been toted as the surest and fastest way to attain a financially and socially successful career. It is not for nothing that many revolutionaries believed that education is the best way to effect change in the world. The late Madiba said that "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world". Malcolm X asserted that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today". This is a world that we have left behind, so the question remains: is higher education still worth it?

The challenges

African higher educational institutions face unprecedented challenges such as overwhelming demand for access, low post-secondary attendance levels, challenges of funding, governance and autonomy, management challenges, gender (including the access of women to higher education and the problems faced by women students and academic staff), the role of research and the problems of scholarly communication (most recently a discredited article published by SU researchers analysing “low-cognitive functioning in coloured women”), language issues, and the brain drain.

A culmination of the aforementioned factors occurred when the Fees Must Fall movement emerged in 2015. The movement argued that this group was effectively excluded from higher education or disadvantaged in their studies because they could not afford the fees and other costs of studying. However, the idea that the movement for free higher education is based on a concern for poor youth becomes problematic when you consider that only 5% of South Africans aged between 15 and 34 are students in universities, while 34% are unemployed. Moreover, the problem of higher education financing is more acute in Africa than in the rest of the world according to the World Bank (2010). In the last 15 years, the total number of higher education students in Africa has tripled, increasing from 2.7 million in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006, while public resources allocated to current expenditure in that sector have only doubled. In contrast, public financing of higher education in the rest of the world has in general kept pace with the increase in the number of higher education students. The situation is even more critical in the poorest African countries where, in the period 1991–2006, the number of students quadrupled, while the available public resources increased at most 75 per cent. The challenges facing higher education financing in Africa are particularly severe because of the continent’s rate of population growth. This begs the question: is higher education worth it?

The global Corona pandemic entered into this backdrop of ongoing challenges of providing quality, affordable education to students in Africa. As of 9 September, Africa has recorded more than 1,321,736 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, many African governments took the decision to close educational institutions to contain the disease. As a result, higher education institutions are having to rethink their approach, becoming more digitally-led, and shifting to online platforms. Consequently, a transition to online learning platforms is placed on already overburdened higher education systems. Online learning requires a level of access that many African individuals are not able to acquire without support: internet connection to attend classes, laptops and computers, and a quiet place to study are the least of these. Across Africa, only 18 per cent of households had access to the internet in 2019, and with the impact of COVID-19 on the economy indicates no governmental relief for the underprivileged in Africa, another socio-economic factor that is pertinent in the higher education sector.

Another factor to consider in this argument is the return on investment of higher education in Africa. Graduates enter economies with notably high unemployment rates, hyper-competition and likely large loans owed to organisations which helped to fund their studies. The mythology of meritocracy has been institutionalised in higher education, allowing the privileged to believe historical racialised economic inequities are irrelevant to contemporary social outcomes, including who attends, finishes and flourishes after graduation. In South Africa, a country with staggering inequality and poverty, it is politically expedient to blame individuals for failing to pay their debts off rather than assessing the structural inequities that affect conditions to pay. Ample research has linked racialised socioeconomic inequities to higher numbers of family dependents relying on black graduates. This phenomenon. is colloquially known as “black tax” and does not count the burden of escalating living costs all South Africans are faced with. Ultimately, poorer students graduate with higher levels of debts and face greater obstacles to pay them, which is neither fair nor indicative of merit.

The benefits

In light of the aforementioned challenges, one might wonder whether it is still worth it to go to university. One reason is the wage gap between university graduates and high school graduates. People with a higher education also enjoy other benefits like health and life insurance, both of which lead to a longer lifespan. Another factor is the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, leading to an increased demand in jobs that require an advanced understanding of AI technologies. Universities are likely the environments with the best infrastructure to acquire this particular skill set. One of the main functions of higher education is not conferring degrees. Higher education demands students to learn new ways of thinking and acquiring problem-solving skills. Students are asked to reason outside of their comfort zones and are taught to engage in critical thinking as both an individual and as a member of a classroom. Outside of earning a degree, a student will graduate with new and improved skills in critical thinking, analytics, written and oral communication, and group problem-solving, all of which are desirable attributes to a potential employer. Anyone who has graduated from a university can attest to the benefits of an alumni network and a university environment provides ample other networking events, such as Golden Key honours society. A strong alumni network can go a long way in the job search, with many alumni eager to help recent graduates find an opportunity within their field of study. Some institutions even invite their alumni to come back to campus and act as panel members for upperclassmen. Students are given the chance to ask vital questions about their industry, while alumni can offer up advice, information, and even networking opportunities.

My take...

Considering both sides of the argument, and my personal experience, I believe that there is a future for higher educational institutions in Africa. However, these institutions need to make radical changes to the current status quo. Due to COVID-19, the world is in a period of unprecedented opportunity for change. Online higher education is still an under-developed market. In some African countries, distance learning has already picked up. Estimates suggest that 60 per cent of Zambian students practice some form of distance learning. Nigeria’s Open University enrols some 160,000 students, making it the country’s largest tertiary provider. The rest of Africa has several socio-economic factors to mitigate to successfully implement online learning in their universities.

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