Excellence at scale
By Brian Rosenberg, Senior Advisor at The African Leadership University and Visiting Professor at Harvard University.
The median age on the continent of Africa is under twenty. This compares with a median age in Japan of forty-eight, in Spain of forty-five, in the United States and China of thirty-eight, in South America of thirty-two, and in India of twenty-eight. By the year 2050, one-quarter of the world’s population will be African, and Nigeria will overtake the United States as the third most populous nation in the world. The fifteen fastest growing cities in the world are all located in Africa. It really doesn’t matter which statistic you pick, since they all tell the same story: Africa has an enormous and rapidly growing population of young people, and the economic and political future not just of the continent, but of the world will be shaped in large part by the extent to which higher education can prepare that population both for employment and for engagement and leadership in civic life.
The current barriers to achieving that goal are daunting. The United States, with a population of about 330 million and a median age of thirty-eight, has, depending upon how one counts, between four and five thousand colleges and universities. Africa, with a population of about 1.4 billion and a median age of under twenty, has just over twelve hundred. Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent with over two hundred million people, has about two hundred universities. According to the World Bank, about 9 percent of eligible students in Sub-Saharan African were enrolled in tertiary education in 2019, the lowest percentage of any region in the world, and only about half of those students graduate. And this is the current state of affairs, before the explosive growth in population forecast for the next several decades.
This problem has been identified by many inside and outside Africa, but some of the proposed solutions—build more universities, provide more government funding for higher education—are based upon the assumption that a Western model designed to be exclusive and expensive can somehow operate at scale in a region where the GDP per capita is about $1600 USD, compared to $64,000 in the United States and $40,000 in the United Kingdom, and where the middle class, however defined, still comprises a very small percentage of the overall population. Given the enormous imbalance between supply and demand, it is not surprising that low-cost online higher education offered by both for-profit and non-profit providers is expanding rapidly across the continent; however one feels about the quality of such education, it seems preferable to none at all. Even online education, though, faces challenges in Africa, since many people do not have access to reliable internet service or even to reliable electricity, and while about half the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has cell phone access—a surprising statistic—most online courses are not designed to be taken on a phone.
This is where the work of the African Leadership University (ALU) becomes interesting and where it becomes relevant in broad terms as a model for global higher education. The kinds of questions that a new university in Africa has to ask—fundamental questions about the purpose and practices of education—are at least as important and instructive as the particular answers to those questions. The key to providing high-quality tertiary education at scale in a situation of constraint is not to offer a partial or lesser version of the traditional model, but to re-imagine the model from the ground up—to question many of the implicit assumptions that have shaped higher education for a millennium and gone largely unchallenged and unchanged. The answer in Africa is not to build more Western-style universities or for American or European universities to open African outposts; rather, the answer is to design a university that acknowledges the constraints and takes advantage of the assets of the particular context. Purely online education, by offering a less expensive, more widely accessible product, moves in this direction, but too often it simply reproduces on a screen a traditional pedagogical approach, and too often its completion rates are poor.
A hybrid campus & hubs experience
The mission of ALU is to achieve what it calls “Excellence at Scale” within a region desperately in need of both, a mission that can only be accomplished by sharply lowering the cost of education and radically altering the method of delivery: by creating neither a wholly online university, which usually sacrifices excellence, nor a wholly campus-based university, which isn’t scalable, but an experiential university, which combines the lower cost, flexibility, and access to information of the former with the community and culture of the latter and shifts the emphasis from passive listening to active learning. To its original campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda the university is adding “hubs” across Africa, and even outside it, where students can receive online and in-person instruction, connect with one another, and work with employers and communities all over the continent.
For the ALU model to work, it has to upend some of higher education’s most longstanding and widespread assumptions.
The faculty are at the center of the university.
Even if one agrees that the faculty are the heart of the university, what happens when there are not enough of them to go around? The Ph.D. or equivalent is the required degree for most permanent faculty in the United States and much of Europe, but in Africa there are not enough individuals with that degree to staff existing universities, let alone to allow for growth. David Dunne, Director of the Cambridge-Africa program, estimates that to meet international standards, “Africa needs a million new Ph.D. researchers over the next decade.” South Africa, which produces by far the most Ph.D.s on the continent, graduates 46 Ph.D. holders per one million people, roughly one-tenth the number of Switzerland or the United Kingdom. And African countries cannot afford to pay Ph.D. holders from abroad enough to attract them in meaningful numbers. Increasing access to higher education by building it around traditional faculty members, even if it were the ideal end, is at present impossible.
What this means, as ALU founder Fred Swaniker has said many times, is that universities in Africa and in other under-served regions must be built around a resource that is abundant rather than scarce: that is, students. The implications of this shift for everything from the organization of disciplines to methods of instruction are profound. It means entertaining seriously the notion that even new high school graduates, with the right guidance, can be more adept at self-directed learning than is commonly assumed. It means rethinking how information is accessed, how a curriculum is structured, how a university is staffed, how technology is used, and how learning outcomes are measured. Maybe most fundamentally, it means asking whether traditional pedagogy is our only or our best option.
Studies of self-directed learning have a long history but have become more widespread and influential as technology has come to play a major role in education during the past several decades. These studies are attempts to answer important questions: how much can individual students learn on their own, perhaps guided by but not formally instructed by a teacher? Is learning determined by a fixed curriculum more or less effective than learning driven by the particular interests of the student? Given the right tools, proper assistance, and almost unlimited access to information, what can students accomplish without traditional classes? Is self-directed learning as suitable for young adults as for older adults? Answering these questions could provide a path to educating more students more effectively at lower cost—or not. But we will never know the answers if we do not ask the questions and test new educational models. This is most likely to happen at a place like ALU, where the more traditional model is not feasible.
There is a lesson here for global higher education: if the big questions don’t get asked, they can’t get answered. The high-cost, faculty-centric model will continue to exist for the foreseeable future at the wealthiest universities. But it simply fails to address the need to lower the cost of higher education and to reach more people who have neither the money nor the time required to spend three or four years on a university campus. We need to know what can be accomplished through andragogy (facilitated, self-directed learning) and heutagogy (even more fully self-managed learning) because the more we know, the better we will be able to make higher education more accessible. Few institutions in the West have shown a willingness to experiment seriously with these models, so they should watch what happens in regions like Africa, where experimentation is of necessity actually occurring.
Higher education is a meritocracy
Higher education is now and has always been elitist. By this I do not mean simply that name-brand institutions are highly selective or that rankings matter too much. I mean that the history of higher education across the globe is a history of providing a special form of instruction and enrichment to a small, privileged group. In Western countries, the system has from the start been more about ‘weeding out’ than about welcoming in, either explicitly on the basis of race, class, religion or gender or implicitly on the basis of cost, scarcity, and lack of accessibility. Selective universities will argue today that they are admitting those who are elite based on intellect and accomplishment; many others will argue that the scales are heavily weighted in favor of the socially and economically privileged.
Africa’s social, political, and economic future depends on a very different emphasis: inclusivity rather than selectivity as the purpose of higher education. The goal at ALU is to grow from fewer than fifteen hundred to ten or fifteen thousand students in five years, and doing so means re-thinking not only recruitment and admissions processes, but the operations of the university itself to make it more affordable, accessible, and effective: changing not just the nature of sales but the nature of the product being sold. The two changes that could actually make global higher education more inclusive would be to lower the cost, which means changing the model in fundamental ways, and to become more flexible and creative in modes of delivery so that more students outside the eighteen to twenty-two-year-old demographic can be served.
The university stands “at a slight angle to the world.”
This phrase comes from an essay written by William Bowen when he was President of Princeton University and describes, better than a phrase like “ivory tower,” the generally assumed relationship between the activities inside and outside the walls of the university. Very often those walls are literal: the architecture and geographical location of many Western colleges and universities express in physical form their presumed separation from the world. College and university campuses are often surrounded by brick barriers or wrought-iron fences, and many of the earliest in the United States were established far from the centers of population in order to isolate young men from the moral corruption that was ostensibly rampant in cities. This move both failed to preserve masculine virtue and has had some unfortunate side-effects, including the perception that academic life is different from “real” life and the exclusion from the academic work of the university of much of the wisdom and experience that exist beyond the campus.
According to Nick Burns, “What students and faculty gain in the enhanced sense of academic community that comes from campus life, they can lose in regular interaction with people who don’t dwell in the world of the academy. The campus, by design, restricts opportunities to encounter people from a wider range of professions, education levels and class backgrounds.” Most would agree today that the absence of such encounters has created fissures within Western society that have become dangerously deep.
The separation of the university from the surrounding world is particularly ill-suited for an African context. Most universities in Africa have imported a Western curriculum and organization and in doing so have turned away from traditional forms of education that have long been developed within and adapted to the continent. “African education emphasized social responsibility, job orientation, political participation, spiritual and moral values”: not a bad description of what are supposed to be some of the central goals of college. “Children learnt by doing, that is to say, children and adolescents were engaged in participatory ceremonies, rituals, imitation, recitation and demonstration.” Babs Fanfuwa writes that “Education in old Africa was not rigidly compartmentalized as is the case in the contemporary system today. Educators are beginning to talk about Universities without walls, schools without classes and subjects without grades.” Sometimes the past can inform the future. ALU is an attempt to blend this more traditional form of African education with instruction in many of the skills and ideas required to succeed in the contemporary world. At the core of its model is the concept of “learning by doing,” or experiential learning, which has grown in importance within Western higher education but remains very much on the periphery, usually confined to co-curricular rather than curricular activities.
The absence of experiential learning is one of the factors that is limiting the effectiveness and driving up the cost of higher education. John Dewey was the most influential early proponent in the United States of learning by doing, though his focus was mostly on the education of young children: “As a child discovers by doing, the child is explicitly realized as the main actor of the entire learning process.” Subsequent research has made a strong case that human beings of all ages learn more from challenging experiences than from coursework and that the benefits of this approach are particularly apparent for traditionally underserved students. For the most part “learning by doing” has been much less prominent at both the K-12 and post-secondary levels than what might be called “learning by being spoken to” and “learning by reading.” Experiential learning has begun to make steady inroads in primary and secondary education and is central to something like the Montessori model, but higher education remains more resistant. Experiential learning is difficult to assess and shifts some importance away from precisely those people, traditional faculty, who have to decide on its relevance. Assessing the outcomes of experiential learning is certainly more challenging than grading an exam or an essay, since one needs to assess both the process and the product, but it is far from impossible, and there is a growing body of literature on how to do it. And if shifting some emphasis away from the teacher in the classroom means bringing a new set of people and resources into the learning process through activities such as internships and entrepreneurial projects, that is not at all a bad thing—especially if it benefits students, benefits the larger community, and reduces costs.
Students need a major
The major, usually in a discipline and occasionally in an interdisciplinary area, is nearly universal in the United States and is common around the world. This is far from the worst way to structure undergraduate studies. Majors require students to go into some depth in a particular subject and, sometimes, to deal with increasing levels of sophistication and complexity. Majors in some disciplines tend to be highly structured and to follow a clear path: generally these are in STEM fields. Majors in other disciplines can be a hodgepodge of courses that bear no particular relation to one another, with students sometimes taking introductory-level courses in their senior year. Generally these are in the humanities. But nearly all majors have one thing in common: unless you choose from a very small set of career paths, your major will have little to do with the things you need to know and the work you need to do when you graduate from university. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, where majors continue to be designed as if most students will be going on to pursue Ph.D. study in the discipline. But even in STEM disciplines, majors become decreasingly useful as you get further from an academic career. The work you do as a biology major has little to do with the work you will do in medical school and even less to do with the work you will do as a physician.
I’d imagine that there would be any number of interesting ways to focus an undergraduate education if majors were not so baked into the system. At ALU, the choice is to have students choose not a major, but a “mission.” Students organize their education around one of fourteen “grand challenges and great opportunities” for the African continent. These include urbanization, education, climate change, agriculture, women’s empowerment, conservation, and arts, culture, and design. This eliminates the need for and fragmentation created by disciplinary departments, more closely approximates the issues with which students will need to deal after they graduate, prepares them to make an impact, and speaks directly to their passions. It is not a system for everyone—if you plan on going to graduate school in astrophysics, there are better choices—but it is the sort of variation from the standard path that more Western colleges and universities should be attempting.
Offer a wide range of programs
ALU is equally aware of what it is and what it is not, what purpose it intends to serve and what purpose it will leave to other institutions. It’s right there in the name: the African Leadership University. The mission is to educate “ethical and entrepreneurial leaders” for a continent whose future depends on the work of such people. This is the particular problem it is trying to solve. It is not a research institution. It has no majors in chemistry and Latin. It offers two undergraduate degrees, a Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurial Leadership and a Bachelor of Science in Software Engineering—the latter to meet a pressing need in the region. A few more, though not many, might be added. Prospective students can distinguish it easily from other universities in Africa and know precisely what they will be getting and what they will not be getting. More colleges and universities in the West need to follow the same path by asking what they are positioned to do distinctively well, what the local or national community needs, and what will resonate in a competitive market. What problem are you as an institution trying to solve? “Staying in business” is not a compelling answer.
Too important to fail
There is no guarantee that the ALU experiment will succeed. The motto of the university is Fred Swaniker’s favorite catchphrase, “Do hard things,” and there are few harder things than building a sustainable model of high-quality education at scale on the African continent. But the strategy is sound, it has attracted an enormous amount of philanthropic support from those who understand its potential, and it is inspiring others around the world to think differently about higher education. Tim Knowles, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes the ALU model as “rigorous, affordable, experiential, career aligned, and scalable” and hopes that it can inspire “a new model of post-secondary education in the United States.” ALU might not be too big to fail, but it is I think too important to fail.
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