By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent
League tables have spread across higher education like fast-growing ivy.
But there is something missing from these global rankings of institutions. An entire continent.
You can look through the lists of the top 100 universities and not find a single African institution.
There are US and European universities, plus a growing number from countries such as China and South Korea. But Africa is conspicuous by its absence.
Globalisation in universities is often wrapped in a feel-good language of international partnerships and money-spinning global networks.
It is seductively easy to get lost in the achievements of these illustrious, prize-laden institutions. But what if global competition concentrates all the power and prestige in an increasingly narrow group of mega universities? What happens if it leaves a whole continent out of the loop?
There are 4.5 million students in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics. In terms of higher education league tables, these students are more or less invisible.
But this number represents a huge increase. In 1970 there were only 200,000 students in this vast geographical region. The proportion of young people going to university has climbed from 1% to 6%.
Within this average there are wide differences. In Malawi, only about 0.5% of young people will enter higher education, in Cameroon the level is 9%.
There are also different trends for studying overseas. In sub-Saharan Africa, the two most likely destinations are South Africa and France. North African students also go to France in large numbers.
Also running against all the international trends is that in Africa women are less likely to go to university than men, by a considerable margin. In Chad, a country bigger than the UK, France and Germany put together, only 0.6% of women enrol in higher education.
Even the rise in student numbers is double edged. A report from the World Bank says the growth in enrolments is outstripping the financial capacity of universities to provide staff and facilities. It adds to the pressure on an underfunded system.
Thandika Mkandawire, professor of African Development at the London School of Economics, says African universities are still trying to recover from a loss of funding that began in the 1980s, when resources were switched to primary education.
In the post-colonial eras of the 1960s and 1970s universities grew across Africa, he says. But that came to an abrupt halt. And while other parts of the world invested in higher education, African universities missed out on an entire cycle of growth.
“Once you destroy a university, it’s very difficult to rebuild,” he says.
It might be difficult to play catch-up after so many “lost years”, but Professor Mkandawire says that a new middle class in Africa is putting the demand for better universities back on the political agenda.
There is also a growing recognition that universities are part of building a modern economy.
“Universities are places of upward social mobility,” says Jo Beall, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the only African university to appear in the global top 200.
They are places where individuals and communities try to improve their life chances.
“There is a huge appetite for learning,” she says. But there is a “heartbreaking” uphill struggle for students wanting to go to university in some poorer parts of Africa.
Lack of resources
She describes visiting a central African university where the approach roads were lined by people operating photocopying machines, run on car batteries, copying 1950s text books for students.
Students might have to travel three or four hours each day to get to university. Lecture halls are so overfilled that there are security guards and gates to control the rush.
Professor Beall, who is joining the British Council this summer, says she remains optimistic about the future of African higher education.
There are universities working to become high-performing research institutions.
But there will need to be changes – including greater recognition of the importance of academics and partnerships with international universities.
The weakness of Africa’s universities is not only about a lack of money, says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US.
He says there have been “multiple dysfunctions”, not least of which have been political instability and corruption.
African universities have missed out on many of the trends in recent decades which have boosted universities in other parts of the world.
The lucrative market in overseas students has not brought students to Africa. Instead there has been a “brain drain” with Africa’s scholars moving abroad.
US and UK universities have invested in branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East rather than Africa.
And Africa, with extremes of wealth and poverty, has lacked the type of expanding middle class that has helped to drive the growth in higher education in countries such as China and India.
As well as financial investment, he says there need to be cultural changes, such as protecting academic freedom, to create the conditions in which universities can develop.
But there is no escaping the scale of the financial gap.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has set up a faith foundation which works with a network of universities around the world, including in the US and Africa.
He points out that Yale is not just much wealthier than a university such as Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone – Yale’s endowment is several times greater than the GDP of the entire country.
Ruth Turner, chief executive of the foundation, says the scale of the gap is not just about economics – it needs to be considered in moral terms.
“We all live in a globalised world. But we lack a vocabulary for an ethical way of looking at it. How do we ask is it a right thing to do?”
In a global market, the odds can seem stacked in favour of the big players. It is the corner shop against the chain store.
The top universities are “global institutions, they can attract the best staff, they have links with business, they extend beyond their location”, said Keith Herrmann, who is working on a Commonwealth-supported project to make Uganda’s universities more attractive to students in east and southern Africa.
In contrast, he says that for many universities in Africa, without such links and leverage, the “benefits of globalisation are elusive”.
“Universities are vital, fundamental to getting skilled individuals, it’s crucial to economic development,” he says, but many African universities are missing out on the upward cycle of more investment, more research and attracting more international students.
But there are signs of hope. “There is a change, it’s becoming much more open, there is less repression,” said Professor Mkandawire.
He says there is a recognition that switching investment away from universities had been a mistake, which was now being reversed.
“There are islands of good performance emerging,” he said. But he warned that progress was going to take many years of hard work.