ACCRA, Ghana — Sulemana Mohammed was destined to become a maize farmer like his parents, battling floods and droughts to eke out a living. Graduating top of his class didn’t assure placement in the public university because his family couldn’t afford the fees.
His dream survived, however, because he had an alternative. The privately run Ashesi University College in Accra accepted him on scholarship and today the 26-year-old is an investment research analyst for Frontline Capital Advisors who pays his brother’s university fees.
“I’m climbing the ladder,” he said. “There are more opportunities now.”
The trend is reflected throughout sub-Saharan Africa, which despite corruption and political instability is making tremendous progress in expanding higher education opportunities, enabling more Africans to reach middle-class status.
Who is part of Africa’s middle class is not easily defined nor is it clear how many people make up this group that is key both economically and politically. A strict level of income is not sufficient to determine who is in the middle class. Education, career paths and aspirations are also important features that can add large numbers to the sector.
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Enrollment in higher education has tripled to 4 million across the subcontinent since 1990, out of a total population of 850 million, according to a World Bank report published in 2008. Private universities are a major factor, growing from two dozen to 468, while public institutions have doubled to 200 in that period, said the report.
The 30 private university colleges in Ghana today have been created in the past decade. Like elsewhere in Africa, a deregulation movement prompted their growth. Post-independence states, including Ghana, attached symbolic importance to things like public universities and national airlines. Shortly after independence in 1957, Ghana had three public universities and the country has seven today.
The universities and Ghana's middle class as a whole suffered when the economy collapsed in the late 1960s and the country went through a series of military coups.
“Nationalizing companies, setting price controls, that hurt a lot of people,” said Patrick Awuah, Ashesi’s founder and president. “The middle class took a beating back in those days, but it’s coming back.”
Awuah, a Ghanaian who earned a scholarship to Swarthmore College, left his engineering job at Microsoft Corp. to lay the groundwork for Ashesi. That was in the late 1990s, soon after Ghana liberalized its higher education framework, allowing private involvement.
Ashesi launched in 2002 and has grown to 350 students studying for degrees in business administration, computer science and management information systems. It recently began construction outside Accra for a $6.4-million campus that will allow the school to eventually accommodate 2,000 students.
Nearly half of Ashesi’s students receive financial aid or scholarships.
“The people that are being cut out are disproportionately the poor. That’s the reality,” he said. “Those who will get into college have opportunities after that.”
Getting in to public or private higher education institutions remains a challenge for many qualified applicants. Despite growth, private institutions comprise just 10 percent of Ghana's total higher education enrollment of 110,000.
Nearly 60 percent of applicants to Ghana’s public institutions were turned away in 2008 for lack of space and staff, said Minister of Education Alex Tettey-Enyo. Just 6 percent of college-age students get into university in Ghana, compared to the global average of 26 percent.
Across the sub-Saharan region, with a total population of 850 million, just 5 percent of eligible Africans are enrolled in college.
“Despite rising enrollment in tertiary-level institutions, the numbers of students graduating are pitifully small,” Yaw Ansu, the World Bank’s director of human development for Africa said in a 2008 report. “And despite reform efforts, the quality remains well below par.”
The report notes that private institutions undertake little research, leaving the nation’s development issues in the hands of public universities. Many rely heavily on “moonlighting” public sector professors, are religiously affiliated and ignore labor market demand in favor of student interests, the report said.
Private financing “is imperative” for the future of higher education in Africa, said Zeinab El Bakri, vice president of the African Development Bank, to a UNESCO conference in Paris last year. Ashesi, for example, raised $3.7 million in private donations to build its new campus and has a fundraising unit based in the U.S. The school also borrowed $2.5 million from the World Bank's pirvate lending arm.
Efficiency should trump parochialism, said El Bakri. He encouraged educators to work cooperatively by establishing regional “centers of excellence" and stressed that higher education "must become the breeding ground of good governance."
Afua Aidoo, a 21-year-old studying at Ashesi, said students of her generation are discovering that they can chart their own course, instead of doing only what their parents do.
"Especially for a female child, you have to force your way through school. Most of the time you don't get to finish," she said. "Once the opportunities are there and people are aware of them, they do take advantage. You see more people wanting to study, to educate themselves. People are getting the opportunity to move ahead."
Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including South Africa's growing class of "black diamonds," the challenge to Kenya's middle class, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.