Many newly independent African countries in the 1960s inherited regional and ethnic inequalities in the level of formal education. These new states brought together subnational regions of diverse ethnic and religious communities. The regions differed in their exposure to missionary activity – the main vehicle for the spread of formal Western education in the colonial era.
Inequalities in access to education increased as one climbed the school ladder. Access to university education was both extremely limited and very unequal.
As access to higher education determined who would occupy some of the most important positions in society, politicians were very concerned about how higher education would spread. In this context, how did regional inequalities in access to university evolve after independence?
While several recent articles have highlighted considerable social inequalities in access to higher education in African countries today, there is little work that examines how and why these inequalities have changed over time.
In one recent paper So I traced the regional origins of university graduates since the 1960s in seven African countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. I built a regional inequality measure for each country and looked at some of the factors that influenced this trend of inequality.
The results show that regional inequalities decreased during the first two decades of independence. However, from the 1980s, regional inequalities remained stagnant or increased in this group of countries. Inequalities have widened mainly because major urban metropolises have taken the lead, leading to a growing urban bias in access to university.
I used recent census data which contains information about where people were born and what level of education they have achieved. I have grouped these people by district or province of birth, depending on the administrative structure of the country. In Ghana, for example, people were grouped into the ten regions of the country, while in Kenya, they were grouped into the current 47 counties of the country.
By grouping people by age group, and assuming that most people who attend university do so around the age of 20, I was then able to trace the evolution of the regional distribution of education. academic over time.
University education has been slow to develop in these former British colonies. The share of the population attending university at the end of the colonial era was extremely low.
At the time of independence, Kenya had about 400 university students (1961), while Tanzania and Zambia had 300 each (1963). The distribution of these scarce educational opportunities was asymmetric at the regional level. University attendance tended to be highest among those growing up in major cities and in regions with the most economical production (particularly cash crops and mining).
This historical heritage is long standing. On average, regions with above-average university education in the 1960s continue to have higher university success rates today.
But the picture is not entirely gloomy. During the first decades of independence, some of the worst performing regions in each country caught up. The regional pattern of inequalities for each of the seven countries shows that inequalities declined in most countries in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, the number of university students was increasing quite rapidly. Scholarships for students were generous and governments made efforts to ensure regional balance.
In the 1980s, many African countries experienced financial difficulties. Governments have struggled to fund their largely public university systems. During this period, the rate of expansion of universities declined. Access to university has become increasingly competitive. This ended the period of regional convergence in university enrollment. Regional inequalities in access to university have started to widen again.
My analysis found that the best placed to access the highly competitive university system were increasingly students born in major cities with higher incomes and more educated parents. Measures of regional inequalities excluding capitals show that there has been no or very little growth in regional inequalities since the 1980s. This shows that most of the increase in inequality has been caused by the capital region.
In the 1990s, many African countries reformed their university systems again by introducing or increasing tuition fees. They have also enabled more private universities to be established. This has increased the number of students who can be educated and has led to a rapid increase in university enrollments. But from the available data, it appears that regional inequalities in access to university have remained high or have widened further.
Concentrated in cities
The reasons for this continued growth in inequalities of access are multiple. The most important factor is the one that is difficult for decision-makers to address. Census data shows that target countries have a considerable rate of rural-urban migration. These migrants represent a small part of university graduates. As a result, university graduates are increasingly concentrated in cities. University students tend to be the children of highly educated people – they in turn are more likely to pursue higher education. This perpetuates the concentration of highly skilled people.
The slightly better news is that, as cities tend to be ethnically mixed, the growing urban bias does not appear to have resulted in a sharp increase in ethnic inequalities in university education. In three countries (Ghana, Malawi and Uganda), censuses also asked respondents to indicate their ethnic origin. Using these self-reported ethnicities, I measured ethnic inequality by cohort. I have found much less growth in inequality on an ethnic basis compared to a regional basis.
Since migration is a major driver of this regional differentiation, this trend is likely to continue unless there is more economic development and more job creation outside major urban centers. This implies that the face of Africa’s top performers is changing. From a slim educational elite of the 1970s, where most college graduates had rural or small town roots, the more educated ranks are increasingly dominated by people born and raised in major multi-ethnic urban centers.