STUDENTS across South Africa are demonstrating against proposed fees increases at the country’s universities, but also for wider reform, in protests that threaten to ground activities at many of the institutions.
The students say higher fees will further disadvantage black learners in Africa’s most advanced economy who had little access to universities during decades of white apartheid rule, even as the varsity administrators counter that without bigger subsidies from the government they have no option but to raise fees to maintain academic standards.
With the popular Twitter hashtag #FeesMustFall, it is an affordability struggle that would resonate on the continent. In March, students at Makerere University, Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious, went on strike, protesting a demand by administrators that they pay up all fees due before they were allowed to learn and sit tests.
Under pressure, the institution extended its payment deadline but the rioting students said this was not sufficient. “We shall fight until the last drop of blood because the two weeks are not enough for our parents to clear the millions” the private Daily Monitor quoted Joseph Asiimwe, a second year student of computer sciences, as saying at the time.
The Makerere students’ concerns would reflect the steep cost of universities in Africa, where high levels of poverty see many struggle to raise tuition and school sustenance fees.
This is despite the continent’s growth continuing to be held up as an African success story—suggesting the benefits are still yet to trickle down to individual pockets.
Even then, demand for higher education on the continent remains brisk. There are an estimated 2,500 institutions of higher learning in Africa, but less than 1,000 of these are universities.
In 1991, Africa had only 2.7 million students, by the end of this year projections are of 18-20 million students, according to the World Bank. Despite this the African Union projects that only 10% of Africans have enrolled for tertiary education.
But in addition to underinvestment in physical infrastructure such as new institutions, the cost of attending is the main impediment.
Makerere for example charges the highest fees of any public institution in the East African country, at $1,014 annually for the Bachelor of Medicine course.
Architecture, another of the professional courses that are among the most expensive in universities everywhere, costs $1,510 per year at the private Uganda Martyrs University.
These figures exclude accommodation, food and other expenses, which can often reach the same levels.
In neighbouring Kenya, the most expensive course at a public university is dental medicine, for which the University of Nairobi charges about $1,940 for the first year, and $5,200 every year thereafter in tuition fee, according to its website. An economics course here would cost an average of $1,200 a year.
The top player in the country’s robustly growing private university scene, the United States International University-Africa, charges an average of $4,145 per year, which includes tuition, room and board, or $2,090 to learn only.
Nigeria’s most expensive institutions include the American University of Nigeria, which charges an average $15,000 all-inclusive annually ($8,000 tuition only), and the church-run Babcock University, which charges up to $3,800 in tuition fees annually, or up to $9,000 all expenses.
The University of Lagos charges about $600 per year in tuition fees, while Obafemi Awolowo University charges between $530 and $536. Both are public institutions.
‘Lowest in Africa’
The latter, in raising fees last year, said previous amounts—which were at an average $80 per semester including board, had been the lowest in the Nigerian university system, and “the most ridiculous in the entire tertiary educational system in Africa”.
The University of Ghana’s most expensive course comes with a $1,277 bill, or $320 if you secure a subsidy, but this is not inclusive of meals and accommodation.
One of the country’s top private universities, Ashesi, will cost you up to $9,000, including food and board, and $7,000 for classes only.
The University of Cape Town, one of South Africa’s more expensive public higher education institutions, charges a median of $4,300 in tuition fees.
The University of Kwazulu-Natal, which saw protests in February as students demanded more financial aid, charges a median $3,100 a year, including board.
In Egypt, the American University of Cairo will charge you a median $17,000 in tuition for the first year. Fees here can reach an eye-popping $32,000 in tuition fee only for international students annually.
Evidently, public universities charge considerably less, making them a lifeline for many students from humbler backgrounds and informing the opprobrium on the continent over fee rises.
But significantly, many private institutions, especially in the developed world, tend to sit on endowments and can offer financial aid packages that soften out tuition fee hikes.
But students in African public universities, which have the least global spending by the government on higher education, and whose most successful individuals and companies rarely give back to their alma mater or look to invest in human talent, can only look on enviously. And hit the streets.
Editor’s note: The figures in the article, including in the infographic, derive from a Mail & Guardian Africa piece on the issue done earlier this year. As such they were correct as at March 16, 2015, but may since have changed.