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Why Bother to Vote? Why Elections Are Losing Their Lustre

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A couple of years ago, there was a contentious debate in academic and policy circles about the perceived decline in global democracy. Through all the talk about how to define democracy and measure its growth and reversal, one thing remained certain: the sanctity of elections. Regardless of whether or not democracy is advancing, elections retain their position at the center of any legitimate democratic system. Problematic though they might be, elections represent the height of political progress.

When there is public outcry over an election, is usually revolves around a particular aspect of the electoral process: the merits and/or drawbacks of election technology, controversy around how votes are counted, the source of campaign money; the list goes on. This has especially been the case in the last year, as people reacted in shock to -and looked for flaws in- the electoral process after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the American presidential election.

But how do we know that elections themselves are still a broadly accepted and publicly legitimate way to select leaders? And given that even dictatorial leaders are often happy to hold elections, what is their real value in advancing democracy around the world?

The Erosion of Electoral Credibility

It turns out that people around the world are wondering the same thing. In fact, more than ever before, citizens from across the globe report that elections are not necessarily a defining part of a democratic system. In the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, for instance, less than half of all respondents (41.5 percent) agreed with the view that elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. This represents a significant drop from the previous round of the survey (2005-2009), when more than half of the respondents (52.3 percent) expressed that elections are an essential part of democratic systems. This drop goes hand in hand with a sinking faith in democracy overall. From 2005-2009 to 2010-2014, there was a 7.1 percentage drop in the proportion of people around the world who felt that democracy is “absolutely important.”

It isn’t difficult to see that elections are losing their lustre. But why? In representative democracies, elections empower citizens to stand in judgment of their (prospective) leaders. Even if only for a short while, elections shine a spotlight on ordinary voters, providing a platform for them to debate, reflect and ultimately assess their choices. Voters hold ultimate power in elections…or do they?

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy. As a result, the rules that govern elections often do not uphold the principles of democracy, and ordinary voters do not hold the reigns of power in elections anymore.

Electoral Systems

In some ways, it all starts with the electoral system. Although the design of a country’s electoral system — involving calculations of district sizes and populations, determinations of boundaries and vote to seat ratios — may seem like a purely technical process, the choice has serious political implications. At their core, after all, electoral systems determine how votes get counted and translated into seats; they determine who has a chance of a seat at the table. Electoral systems are thus at the heart of democratic design.

Since the choice of electoral system design impacts many later phases of the electoral cycle – especially party and coalition formation and campaign strategy – it is a stage setter, providing the framework and incentive structure for electoral stakeholders’ behavior. A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory. In so much of the world, these types of winner-take-all electoral systems risk creating a tyranny of the majority. They also often produce governments that are seen to be “unfair” in the sense that the number of seats a party wins can often be highly disproportionate to the number of votes that party garnered. Parties who do not manage to win a majority of votes but who still capture a substantial amount of support are left with absolutely no access to decision-making power. In 2015, the controversy surrounding first past the post was brought to the fore in the United Kingdom. There, the Conservatives won 37 percent of the vote and 51 percent of parliamentary seats. The party therefore received a parliamentary majority with less than half of the electorate’s support.

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.

Of course, other electoral systems – even ones that seek to produce more “fair,” proportional results – have their problems. Proportional representation may give more parties a seat at the table, but it can also bestow striking amounts of power to the smallest and most ideologically extreme parties, who become “kingmakers” in the kinds of coalition governments that PR systems produce. In Israel, for example, hard-line members of ruling coalitions have routinely blocked potential agreements related to the conflict with Palestinians over “any slight movement perceived as anti-settler.”

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidential election without winning the majority of Americans’ votes. In fact, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes than Trump, which represented the most votes ever won by a losing candidate in American history. Since it is the votes of the American electoral college, made up of elite party insiders, that ultimately decide the victor, the popular vote can end up determining nothing.

It is easy to see why such systems provide real disincentives to popular participation, especially for non-mainstream voters. Indeed, a post-election poll in the United States revealed that a mere 30 percent of surveyed Americans felt the electoral system was functional. 70 percent said that it was broken.

Money in Politics

Of course, electoral system design is just the tip of the iceberg. The electoral playing field is also heavily skewed by the growing role of money – both legal and illicit – in electoral contests. Without regulations that limit donations and expenditures, require regular and full disclosure of funding sources, and that incentivize close interaction with voters, it is all too easy for politicians to fall prey to a small group of wealthy donors who can and do influence policy formulation in the years between elections. In this situation, ordinary voters must fight to be heard, and even when they are they must struggle to compete with affluent elites. This kind of situation is also self-perpetuating. Once elected, leaders will think about how to retain their positions; the quest for campaign contributions and the subsequent quid pro quo may go on for the entirety of elites’ electoral careers.

This type of election is hardly voter-centered. Indeed, the Kofi Annan-led Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security listed uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance as a “grave threat” to the credibility of elections. “In an era of explosive growth in campaign expenditure across older democracies, citizens lose faith in the electoral process. They suspect that wealthier citizens and corporations have greater influence in public affairs…Poorly regulated campaign finance in turn leads to lower participation in the democratic process, tainted electoral integrity and impaired democracy.”

Examples of these situations abound. In India, where the election commission has set fundraising and expenditure limits, politicians resort to “black money” from the criminal underworld. Politicians have been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. In fact, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is often cited for saying that “every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” In 2012, parliamentarians discussed spending as much as $3.3 million on campaigns, despite expenditure limits of $26,000. To put this in perspective, the average Indian person earned $1,480 at that time, roughly 6 percent of the official limit and .04 percent of the maximum $3.3 million quoted by politicians. In Kenya, where parliament refused to pass a campaign finance regulatory bill into law, candidates have spent millions even before the official beginning of the campaign period. In the run up to the primary elections in April, for instance, aspirants in the North Rift region of the country spent approximately Sh850 million ($8.2 million) on their campaigns. In the Uasin Gishu region, the leading opposition party’s top two gubernatorial aspirants each spent Sh100 million ($967,000) in the primary contest.

Given the dangers, it is surprising how little regulation there is around these issues. In fact, around the world, only about a quarter of all countries in a global study banned corporate donations to political parties, less than half prohibited donations from corporations with government contracts to political parties, and just 4 in 10 outlawed anonymous donations to candidates. Rules about disclosure aren’t much better. Just 50 percent of countries require political parties to submit financial reports in relation to election campaigns.

In such contexts, it comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

Media and Elections

Voters also greatly depend on the media during elections. Indeed, as the conduit of information to the public, the media play a pivotal role in electoral processes. Voters rely on the media to learn about candidates’ and parties’ platforms, to debate with other voters on the current issues, and to find the practical information necessary to cast ballots. Furthermore, the media act as watchdogs, safeguarding the transparency of the process. Without credible information, voters stand little chance of making informed decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, however, media around the world are in crisis. In its most recent report, the Electoral Integrity Project lists media as one of the two (the other was campaign finance) most serious obstacles to a level electoral playing field. There are many challenges to free and independent media today, but some of the most critical election-related problems include:

Freedom of the Media: Media cannot fulfill its duties to society in a politically restricted environment. It is thus worrying that the 2017 edition of the World Press Freedom Index lists only fifteen countries (out of 180) in its most free category (“good situation”). Of these, twelve are located in northern and western Europe. In other countries, media outlets and journalists face high-profile bashing – increasingly from elites, financial restrictions, threats, physical abuse and violence, and an oppressive legal environment. Notably, the Index singles out the African continent for the recent spate of internet shutdowns during elections.

The 2017 Index warns of a “tipping point” in the state of media freedom, especially in democracies. The report states that media freedom “has never been so threatened,” and documents a 14 percent rise in the overall level of media constraints and violations over a five year period as well as how an “obsession” with surveillance and the death of respect for confidential sources have contributed to the decline of many consolidated democracies.

Consolidation: The vast majority of media outlets are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people and firms. In Australia, for instance, the News Corporation and associated Rupert Murdoch companies own 57.5 percent of the country’s newspapers. In Chile, El Mercurio SAP owns 54.9 percent of that country’s newspaper market. The concentration of media ownership means that there is less diversity of opinion in the public domain. Without multiple, diverging viewpoints and feisty public debate, voters are less informed and thus less able to make independent and free choices on election day.

A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory.

Access to Media: Media become especially critical during election campaigns, when candidates and parties rely on television, radio, newspapers and the internet to communicate with the public. Without regulation of some sort, smaller, less affluent contenders will struggle to access the media and therefore to reach voters. In 67.2 percent of cases, countries provide subsidized access to media for political parties, but in many of those cases that subsidy is based on the party’s share of the vote/number of seats in the previous election, or even on the number of candidates running. Newer and smaller parties are thus at an extreme disadvantage. In cases where there is no subsidy for media access, the costs can be prohibitive. In the United States, for instance, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spent approximately $227 million on media. That was 58 percent of her total expenditures for the campaign. Donald Trump spent less in actual dollars, but it still amounted to 59 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures.

Without the freedom to report honestly and in safety and without a balanced playing field, characterized by equal access to media, voters are at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they do not have the opportunity to freely and easily obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about their choices on election day as well as about the legitimacy of their electoral processes. This is even more true as global threats to internet freedom grow.

These problems threaten media’s connection to the public around the world. They also serve to perpetuate elite dominance in the electoral arena, undermining the rights to information and the freedoms of expression and speech that are fundamental to democracy.

Electoral Manipulation

As if the issues outlined above were not enough, old-fashioned rigging continues to be a problem in elections around the world. Despite the advent of electoral technology, which is perceived by some as a way to prevent many polling station-level crimes, in many parts of the world, elections are still susceptible to ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, underage voting, and voter bribery.

These types of incidents are regular occurrences, happening all over the world. Egypt provides an exemplary case in point. In 2010, observers cited the removal of opposition candidates’ names from ballots, blocking opposition agents from entering polling stations, premature closing of polling stations and ballot box stuffing. Evidence in the public record included photos and videos of voter intimidation and election officials filling in blank ballots. In 2014, turnout was so low during the scheduled two days of voting that the election commission took the step of adding a third day. International observers called this a “needless irregularity.” On the night before this additional day, the opposition candidate withdrew his monitors because security forces were abusing them. In 2015, Egyptian elections were marked by widespread vote-buying and violence. In fact, the situation was so extreme that some candidates dropped out of the race.

The same issues can be seen in many other parts of the world. Recent analysis cites allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, election related violence and the theft of vote counting machines in the Philippines, and irregular figures from results sheets in Gabon. In Nigeria, accusations of double voter registration are threatening the legitimacy of a sitting governor and a British MP is on trial for 14 counts of electoral fraud.

Allegations of rigging are also occurring in relation to election technology. The United States 2016 election is perhaps one of the best known recent examples of polls tainted by such accusations, but the vulnerability of election technology is well known in other parts of the world. In 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda revealed how, beginning in 2005, he manipulated elections for a variety of clients across the South American continent, ultimately having a hand in nine different countries. Just before the 2016 election in the Philippines, hackers attacked the country’s election commission website and compromised personal data of approximately 70 million people.

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts

And this isn’t all. The drawing of electoral boundaries, the drafting and amending of laws, access to voter registration, electoral dispute resolution and many other aspects of the electoral process can all be skewed to serve private rather than public interests. In recent years, much of the conversation and rhetoric around elections has focused on trying to determine how many problems, or exactly what problems, constitute a fraudulent election. This is a difficult question – after all, the manipulation of even one part of the electoral process can impact a number of stages later on. If it is clear that private interests have trumped public interests in even one phase of elections, shouldn’t that be enough?

Are polls passé?

For some, issues such as the ones raised above call the very legitimacy of elections into question. For these critics, the solution does not lie in bolstering the electoral process; it rests in upending reliance on elections altogether.

Indeed, one argument is that elections are outdated, relatively undemocratic and far from the best way to channel people’s thoughts and opinions.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?… Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

The argument has its merits. Although elections are processes, made up of multiple phases and activities, each of which has its individual purpose and impact on the final result, the majority of attention, money and work is – more often than not — focused on election day and the counting and announcement of votes. Practically, then, an election is about individual decisions at the ballot box. One tick and it’s all over.

There is also the argument that electoral democracy is a particularly western conception, designed for particular social systems that are organized quite differently from social structures and systems in other parts of the world. Thomas Koelble and Edward LiPuma contend, for example, that “the real measure of democracy is the extent to which governance conforms to the visions of democracy worked out by the governed.” Elections, at least the way they are currently practiced, may not factor into all visions of democracy.

In this reality, what are the other options? Should the focus be – as it has been for the last two decades – on improving electoral processes? Or is there another way altogether? Is it time to reconsider elections as the preferred mode of choosing political leaders?

That may already be happening.

In many places around the world, new political movements – many of which have sprung from waves of popular protests against the corruption, greed, and self-serving mindsets of politicians, are working to create innovative structures through which citizens and voters can easily and directly participate in governance. While these movements do not necessarily reject the concept of elections, they place as much – if not more – importance on internal democracy and consensus. As a result, they approach elections from a position that has grown much more directly from constituents’ and members’ input and decisions than those of traditional parties.

It comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

By placing ordinary people at the center, these movements are defining new modes of direct democracy. Indeed, the Podemos party in Spain makes use of digital platforms like Loomio and Reddit, which allow citizens to take part in policy discussions, vote on senior party positions and come to consensus on issues under debate. Similarly new movements in India and Italy make efforts to grow from the local level upwards, prioritizing grassroots issues.

Another possibility is sortition, or drafting by lot. In this system, a random sample of the population comes together to learn about selected topics, hear from experts, debate with each other and make decisions. In this way, everyone does not vote on a range of issues that few understand. Instead, a randomly selected group of people takes the time to comprehensively understand a set of questions and make well-informed decisions. This body could then interact with elected representatives to draft legislation. Proponents argue that sortition reduces corruption and promotes attention to the common good. Sortition is not new. It was used in ancient Athens, and it has been and/or is being used in Bolivia, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States.

The new political movements and the concept of sortition demand much more of people than mainstream elections. This makes sense; it takes significant effort and time to weigh the policy choices facing society. Elected representatives, regardless of their experience and expertise, can only do so much on their own; citizens and voters must be active participants, providing their leaders with the information they require to make informed decisions and constantly demanding accountability.

It may be that if elections are to regain and maintain legitimacy, they, too, will have to ask more of voters. And voters should demand more of their elections, if it’s not already too late.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

Ideas

Capitalism: The First Victim of the Coronavirus

The coronavirus crisis could provide humanity with an opportunity to overthrow the Western bourgeois model imposed by capitalism globally. It has changed our consumer habits and forced us to rethink our social condition.

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Capitalism: The First Victim of the Coronavirus
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Lockdown has now become the new buzzword across all the countries in the world. But haven’t I been in lockdown for several years? My time has been entirely devoted to thinking about the intellectual humanities in their varied disciplinary expressions. I have dedicated a lot of time to constantly reading and writing. In this time of crisis, I still consider myself in a conclave as I have frequently done within the four walls of my office, at home in Mayotte, or in a hotel in Paris, Maputo, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. I still read; I listen to the news and I continue writing.

I have finished pending writing projects, something that I couldn’t achieve owing to lack of time; and this quarantine offers me the much-needed hours for my research and writing projects.

This pandemic is clearly a drama. But I do not see humanity slowing down, but rather see a system that has been suddenly brought to its knees. It is true that there are hundreds of deaths, but faced with the consequences of coronavirus, a sense of solidarity and responsibility towards others is reborn each time humanity is tested. This is not humanity broken in the depth of counting the dead. No, far from it. Because humanity will know how to show solidarity, and a humanitarian sense and humanism will yield at the end of the crisis.

The tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes has a different name. And paradoxically, this is also a moment pregnant with hope for humanity, like waiting for the sun at the end of a cyclone. This drama is, in reality, the opposite of the ruin of a system thought out two centuries ago. It could not have triumphed this far, except by imposing a monstrous greed. Gluttonous, it gobbled up any sense of human solidarity.

My assertion is that the drama that destiny is unfurling is the end of this capitalist model conceived by the Western bourgeoisie that resulted from the Industrial Revolution of 1789. It is the first victim of this small virus that has just ripped the ogre that has exploited humans and nature with its tendencies of overproduction and overconsumption for its profit. This has to do with the agony of capitalism, which exploits individuals and communities around the world by imposing on them a unique model of society built according to its own cannons that crush, scramble, and grind into debris all the good things that human societies create for the better: their own culture, their identity and works of thought.

Consumers

In every city in the world, workers and the unemployed are reduced simply to consumers. Night and day, they wander like cattle in transhumance in the wide, open spaces of the vast shopping malls, consuming everything and nothing for the sole purpose of satisfying a minority that owns large companies and global brands.

Capitalism is the first victim of the coronavirus. Now, suddenly, everything has stopped. Stores have closed. Football stadia are empty. Airports are closed. Factories have shut down. Mass production has stopped. Brakes have been pulled on consumption. The stock markets are collapsing.

Yet, all of a sudden, there is less pollution in the big cities. Nature is taking over. Rivers and forests are breathing. We could say it is almost surreal, if not ironic.   Lacking power, states are prescribing books and works of thought, culture and the arts for those who are in isolation. For a long time, this vital intellectual sustenance was banished to the furthest rungs in those large surface malls, being the least of their concerns.   We are the spectators of this unedited scene that depicts the death of a titan. Civilisation is in the process of losing pride in its science and finance. In lockdown, I invite you to reflect.

Today let us ask ourselves whose interests these high streets serve. These streets that were filled yesterday with customers are now ghostly. There is a lockdown of a system that had confiscated all reason, repudiating any logic that did not relate to production and consumption. Lockdown in the face of the pandemic we are now experiencing is forcing us to address the following question: What are our concerns now that stores and places of leisure are closed? We will say: “Food, water, health and family.” And we will wonder why we walk on these high streets every day: “Of what use is what I bought there?”

Undoubtedly, for many people, there will be a feeling of having lost something. A feeling that freedom has been curtailed. This can be explained through the habit and conditioning of consumption. Locked down, we have an opportunity to critically look at our way of life in relation to our social roles both as individual and collective identities.

I start of from the principle that the consumers that we are did not chose to be that, or rather, they did not choose to be this or that type of consumer. The excessive advertising which we see on our televisions, on our phones, on large billboards along roadsides in our cities programme us. During the day, we are at work, and in the evening we end up on the streets in those shopping centres and malls, buying useful and useless things freely. At night we are condemned to plunge into the bars and the discotheques where we are all consumed by imported goods which the city offers us to excess. Is that really our choice? Is it our choice to live in this manner? Do we choose what to buy? Do we have personal tastes linked to our life choices or do we follow the dictatorial orders of the billboards, the screens, the trends and the city that impose their choice on us? Is it really our freedom?

There is a lockdown of a system that had confiscated all reason, repudiating any logic that did not relate to production and consumption. Lockdown in the face of the pandemic we are now experiencing is forcing us to address the following question: What are our concerns now that stores and places of leisure are closed?

The lockdown has provided us with an opportunity to rethink our social condition. From the outset, I realise that the quarantine does not actually take away my freedom. It is the city and the bourgeois capitalist model of the West that have already deprived me of my freedom. The city prevents me from being what I want to be; it imposes an exogenous model on me. The life that is offered to me in the city deprives me of my thoughts and my critical sense. The freedom I think I enjoy is illusory.

All those who cannot consume have this feeling of not being free because they do not take part in this great illusion of shop fronts and nightspots. In truth, my freedom depends on my ability to make conscious choices as an enlightened individual according to the values I have forged and which have been transmitted to me by my culture.

Yet, in this city where I live, I find that the individual I am is conditioned by overconsumption of products imported mainly from the West. These invade one’s universe on a daily basis. Along the roads and streets, advertising impales on people a fantasy. Many products sold in the shops and in the malls of the city, which are now closed, are not useful to one’s existence and happiness. Yet one constantly feels the urge to buy stuff. As a consumer, one thinks that one is going to use the goods, when in fact it is goods that are the tools, the cogs, that turn the capitalist war machine. In this case, it is best to admit that there is no freedom whatsoever and it is, therefore, appropriate to undertake individual work for recovery to happen.

Recovering individual freedom

In consumer societies, individual or social freedom cannot be referred to when the trading system integrates “intellectual products” with “endogenous products” because these represent an essential part of the cultural identity of the territory and, therefore, of the social individual and group.

By “intellectual products” I mean all those cultural objects and representative artefacts that are part of the intellectual ordering of men and women in society that have the capacity to provide them with the requisite knowledge and consciousness to make decisions and hold opinions about life’s choices. These include books, theatre, cinema, music, and cultural and scientific heritage.   By “endogenous production” I mean the economic chains developed by a society, such as food, clothing, and crafts.

After the crisis, when trade reopens its doors, we ought to demand for more local goods and more local thought products and art on the shelves of the shops and on the billboards. Writers, artists, and academics must strive to be a powerful force actively participating in the construction of the city and its civic life. The presence of intellectual and representative goods produced by writers, researchers and other creatives must be accessible on the shelves. They must become consumer goods. These works of emotion, of feeling, of history and heritage must be highly valued. The city and its leaders must be conscious that writing and poetry that is inspired by terror will be able to generate significant answers to urban questions.

After the crisis, when trade reopens its doors, we ought to demand for more local goods and more local thought products and art on the shelves of the shops and on the billboards. Writers, artists, and academics must strive to be a powerful force actively participating in the construction of the city and its civic life.

After the coronavirus what shall we do from and in our cities? The bourgeois model described as the highest finds itself in its limits and has begun its years of decline, despite that fact that the youth who emerged after independence followed it blindly. It is touted as the only economic model that is viable even though this is false. It imposes the same Western system of consumption on every city, with the same high streets in similar commercial centres, bars, and discotheques. It proposes the same products that one finds in the West within a context of poverty.

In reality, the cities of poor countries are feuding. They submit themselves to a voluntary domination. They cut themselves off from their inhabitants, from what I call “intellectual production” and “endogenous production”. Incapable of following the rhythm of New York, Paris, London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi etc., our poor cities dehumanise us through the corruption of men and the prostitution of women.

It is time to think more about a system that would balance these forces. It is unfortunate that the coronavirus is in the process of doing this work.

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Ideas

The Crisis Facing Higher Education and What Can Be Done About It

The financing of higher education is becoming an issue of grave concern to policymakers. How can universities provide high-quality education and student support in an era of tight or declining resources? What changes are required to adapt to the disruptions caused by the digitised economy?

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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities
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In a wide-ranging presentation at a conference held in Nairobi on May 6, 2019, and convened by the World Bank and Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Dr. Jamil Salmi reminded his audience that there are five major funding sources for universities: government subventions, tuition fees, institutional income generation activities, donations, and loans. He noted that effective resource mobilisation requires promoting efficiency, responsiveness and innovation. This entails adhering to several key principles, such as alignment to national priorities, performance orientation, equity, objectivity and transparency, multiplicity of instruments, institutional autonomy and accountability.

Building on Salmi’s observations, a World Bank report, Improving Higher Education Performance in Kenya: A Policy Report, published in August 2019, argues these principles can be realised by the Kenyan government through the introduction of “a combination of performance-based budget allocation mechanisms that would provide financial incentives for improved institutional results and better alignment with national policy goals. Policy makers may consider the following three types of innovative allocation mechanisms, separately or combined, to achieve this purpose: (a) funding formula, (b) performance contracts, and (c) competitive grants.”

The report proposes that the performance contracts and competitive funds should be open to both public and private universities. “Rather than continuing to allocate annual budgets to the public universities on the basis of history…[p]ositive experience in countries as diverse as Chile, China, Egypt, Indonesia, and Tunisia has shown the ability of competitive funds to help improve quality and relevance, promote pedagogical innovations, and foster better management, objectives that are difficult to achieve through funding formulas.”

Africa Economic Outlook 2020, an African Development Bank report, makes similar recommendations. Improving learning outcomes and skills development entails increasing spending per student across Africa, which remains the lowest in the world. Governments are encouraged to adopt performance-based financing and to improve aid targeting. Also, they should facilitate philanthropic financing of private education, develop the student loan market, and effective cost-sharing mechanisms. Further, they ought to promote education-linked conditional cash transfers to girls and poor families, and explore innovative finance options to channel more international private capital into education.

The report notes that the private sector underinvests in skills and urges it to complement government funding in promoting high quality education and reduce the skills gaps they bemoan so much about. It urges the development of public-private partnerships that “enable the government and the private sector to join in providing education infrastructure, products, and services and in sharing costs and resources.”

The report also challenges African schools and universities to “mobilise funds through alumni associations. Dues and donations can be used to improve the school’s facilities and curriculum and provide financial support to members of disadvantaged groups. Alumni associations could also be deployed to lobby governments for more effective education policies.”

Public support for higher education has been declining in many countries around the world. In my book, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015, I note in a chapter on university financing around the world that “out of the 122 countries that had data on government expenditure on education in general as a share of GDP between 2000 and 2013, it rose in 83 countries and fell in 39 others…In terms of expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of total government expenditure, between 2000 and 2013, it rose in 58 countries and fell in 34.”

Digging deeper into the global data on expenditure on higher education, I show that “out of the 95 countries for which data was available covering the 2000–2013 period, government expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of its expenditure on education rose in 62 and fell in 33…Europe claimed the largest number of countries that experienced a rise (19), and Africa those that fell (12)…The patterns in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean fell in between those in the African and European regions.”

Public support for higher education has been declining in many countries around the world. In my book…I note…that “out of the 122 countries that had data on government expenditure on education in general as a share of GDP between 2000 and 2013, it rose in 83 countries and fell in 39 others…

Declines in public funding led to the development of cost-sharing. In my book, I identify five forms of cost-sharing: i) he introduction or imposition of sharp increases in tuition fees; ii) the establishment of dual-track tuition fees for different groups of students; iii) the imposition of user charges for services that were previously free or heavily subsidised; iv) the reduction in the value of student loans, grants, and other stipends; and v) the diminution in the size of the public sector and official encouragement of the expansion of tuition-dependent private institutions, both non-profit and for-profit.”

Dual-track tuition fees were widely adopted in East Africa, and pioneered by Makerere University. This is what came to be called parallel programmes in Kenya, in which government-sponsored students were charged lower tuition fees and self-sponsored students paid much higher rates. In effect, the latter subsidised the former. This model collapsed from 2016 as the number of qualifying students in the KCSE examinations fell drastically and the market for self-sponsored students evaporated overnight. This is at the heart of the financial crisis that has engulfed Kenyan public universities since then.

Declining numbers

Kenyan private universities have always been dependent on tuition, but in 2016 most of them opted to offset the declining numbers of students by accepting government-sponsored students when this option was made available to them for the first time. But it inadvertently ended up reinforcing their financial challenges, as the government student subventions barely covered a third of instructional costs per student, and sometimes even less. Thus, they, too fell into a spiral of severe financial instability. In fact, for some of them the situation became even worse than for public universities: none of their costs for employee salaries and capital expenditures were covered by the public exchequer.

Compounding the challenges of many students and universities is the absence of well-targeted and well-managed financial aid programs at the national and institutional levels. The World Bank report mentioned earlier notes that student support from public funds needs to be better targeted to those who most need it. It shows that the disparity ratio in Kenya between households in the highest and lowest consumption quintiles is 49, “meaning that a young Kenyan from the richest income group is 49 times more likely to access higher education than one from the lowest income group.” In this context, “It is safe to assume, based on the experience of other countries with similar characteristics as Kenya, that a larger share of government subsidies goes to students from the richer family groups than from the lowest socio-economic groups and that financing may still be a significant barrier for many needy students. The Kenyan situation is consistent with the extensive international literature showing that the cost of higher education is a deterrent for young people from low-income groups.”

Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities

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The report advises Kenya to consolidate existing bursary schemes under one single agency, to reform the tuition fee policy, and to strengthen the design and operation of the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB). A more effective tuition fee policy would entail “eliminating the present parallel fee system and move instead to a TFT [Targeted Free Tuition] scheme, following the example of South Africa. This would require shifting from a system of fee exemptions that benefit the most qualified students from an academic viewpoint to a system where the neediest students who qualify for higher education studies would not pay tuition fees.”

For its part, HELB could be strengthened on “three fronts: (a) better targeting, (b) resource mobilisation, and (c) improved loan recovery…HELB could revisit the weights assigned to each indicator to refine the instrument and give priority to low-income students. It would also be important to discriminate more in terms of giving larger sums to the neediest students compared to middle-class students. With regard to resource mobilisation…HELB should focus on seeking alternate sources of funding by delegating fund management to local governments and private companies.”

As for loan collection, “no matter what type of student loan system operates in a country, it is doomed unless its collection mechanism is designed and operates in an effective manner…In the past few years, the Board has invested a lot to boost loan recovery, notably by tracing loan beneficiaries through employers and statutory bodies such as the KRA, the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). To further strengthen loan recovery, HELB could work on improving awareness among loan beneficiaries and their families, introduce a system of moral guarantors, and invest in reliable ICT mechanisms to track graduates.”

The report advises Kenya to consolidate existing bursary schemes under one single agency, to reform the tuition fee policy, and to strengthen the design and operation of the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB).

The report also advises that it is critical to build an income-contingent provision in loan repayment schemes. It states, “International experience shows that income-contingent loans, designed after the Australian and New Zealand model, tend to have higher repayment rates. Not only are they more efficient in terms of loan recovery through the national tax system, but they are also more equitable since graduates pay a fixed proportion of their income and are exempted from repaying whenever they are unemployed, or their income is below a predetermined ceiling.” Besides government subventions through student aid, it is also important for institutions to build student aid capacities from their own resources.

Student aid

At American universities, this often takes the form of differential pricing, in which well-resourced students pay the full listed price, and more needy students pay a

discounted price. The discount rate can be as much as 50%, although a discount rate of more than 35% can result in financial difficulties if not backed by extensive additional institutional resources. For example, the College Scorecard produced by the U.S. Department of Education that lists some key data on individual American colleges and universities shows that the average tuition for such leading ivies such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is $14,000, $19,000, and $10,000, respectively. In reality, in 2018-2019, the cost of attending Harvard for tuition, fees, room, and board was $67,340. Students from families earning below $65,000 pay no tuition, those from families with incomes up to $150,000 pay 0-10%, and there are proportional expectations from families with incomes above $150,000.

Similar schemes are available at Yale, Princeton, and many rich American universities. These universities are, of course, able to do that because of their huge endowments, which in 2018 stood at $39.2 billion for Harvard ($1.7 million per student), $29.4 billion for Yale ($2.3 million per student), and $25.9 billion for Princeton ($3.2 million per student). These endowments are simply unimaginable in Africa. The University of Cape Town, Africa’s leading university, has an endowment of 11.8 billion rands, equivalent to $786.5 million, which would not even put it in the top 100 universities in the United States in terms of the size of endowments.

Many African universities do not have their own institutional student aid programmes or fundraising capacities. Oftentimes student scholarships are from external donors and philanthropic organisations.

At my university, which is a notable exception in some ways, we have a fairly sizable student aid programme covered by the university operational budget that caters for hundreds of students every year. A feature of our student aid is a work-study programme. A few years ago, a group of students set up a scholarship fund called Educate Your Own that currently supports several dozen students. Our internal efforts are supplemented by scholarships from external partners as well as loan schemes with various lending organizations.

Many African universities do not have their own institutional student aid programmes or fundraising capacities. Oftentimes student scholarships are from external donors and philanthropic organisations.

But these initiatives are not enough to meet the financial needs of all students from low- income backgrounds. This is evident by the fact that some students who undertake

deferred payment plans are unable to fulfill their obligations and it takes the university years trying to recover the funds. Many others end up dropping out, which is a huge loss to them, their families, communities and society at large, as well as to the university itself.

Fundraising

As noted above, the third source of funding for universities comprises income-generating activities. To quote the World Bank report again, “While the potential for resource mobilisation is much more limited in developing countries than in OECD nations, Kenyan universities could actively seek additional resources through donations, contract research, consultancies, continuing education, and other fundraising activities, as some of them have already done since the government started reducing university budgets in the mid-1990s.”

But the report warns, “Not all sources of income have the same potential. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, technology transfer is not, on average, a highly beneficial activity from an income generation viewpoint. Even in the United States, which has a favorable policy framework for innovation and technology transfer, very few institutions hit the jackpot with path-breaking innovations that can be successfully commercialized and bring in millions as revenue.

At Harvard University, income from technology transfer licences is equivalent to only 1 per cent of annual fundraising receipts. “More important is undertaking productive activities. But all too often some of these activities may have little bearing on the university’s core focus and expertise. Renting out facilities is popular; some universities have even established petrol stations and mortuaries! More lucrative are grants and contracts from consultancies that bring faculty expertise to bear. Above all, in the United States and other parts of the world with robust institutional fundraising cultures, alumni and corporations provide the most important income generation sources.

Needless to say, fundraising is grossly underdeveloped in most Kenyan and other African universities. As I noted in a keynote address on advancement in African universities at a forum of Vice-Chancellors in Gaborone, Botswana in May 2019, effective fundraising requires developing institutional capacities, cultures, and commitments. Fundraising is a collective institutional enterprise that requires full commitment and participation of management, governing bodies, and faculty. African universities that are serious about advancement or fundraising must make the necessary investments in building their capacities in terms of databases, human capital, marketing and communications, mobilising and managing donors, and ability to run different types of activities, including annual giving, major gifts, and capital campaigns, etc. They also need to establish reward systems to incentivise those who attract philanthropic donations.

Typically, sophisticated fundraising operations require dozens and even hundreds of highly paid and specialised professionals, depending on the size of the institution. Institutional investment can range up to a quarter of funds generated through fundraising. Fundraising professionals are sorely lacking in African universities. Advancement is a long-term project and process that takes many years and even decades to begin bearing fruit. This is often not well understood among leaders and governing boards at many African universities. It is quite common at universities with successful fundraising operations for the governing boards to take leadership in working with the university management in the mobilisation of donors, and in their own personal philanthropy through give or get. In capital campaigns, up to a third can be generated by the governing board. Philanthropy in African universities is also affected by weak national cultures of institutional philanthropy.

Cultures for institutional advancement are also weak even among alumni, the source of up to 70% of external funds to universities in the United States and other countries with rich fundraising traditions. It is not unusual to hear alumni ask, why give when they already paid tuition when they were students? While the culture of giving is strong in many African societies, it tends to be limited to families and kinship networks. Public giving is largely confined to religious organisations.

When it comes to education. the tradition of giving has traditionally been stronger for lower levels—primary and secondary schools (encompassing the construction and maintenance of schools in colonial and postcolonial Africa)—than higher education because the latter was for so long dominated by the state. For higher education, giving is often confined to scholarships for family and relatives.

Some writers identify three types of philanthropy. One is horizontal philanthropy, which is largely peer-to-peer, focused on day-to-day subsistence and based on notions and expectations of solidarity, mutuality and reciprocity. It doesn’t necessarily increase assets, although it can mutate into community foundations. The other is vertical philanthropy in which the rich give to the poor and needy. This encompasses organisations that depend on resources from members or raised from other sources and which disburse funds to others. Finally, there are modern foundations, which first emerged in the USA in the early 20th century. These are often established by wealthy individuals, families, and corporations.

Philanthropy in Africa has been dominated by American and other Western foundations. According to the report by the Council of Foundations, The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations 2011-2015, international giving by American foundations rose from $7.2 billion in 2011 to $9.3 billion in 2015, and the average grant rose from $200,900 to $604,500. Health claimed the bulk (52.5%), and education received only 7.9% of the funds. US foundations giving to Africa between 2002 and 2012 almost doubled from 135 to 248. In dollar terms, the funding rose from $289 million in 2002 to $1.46 billion in 2012, given to 36 of the 54

African countries. Between 2011-2015 sub-Saharan Africa led with $9 billion (25.4% of the total disbursed globally), followed by Asia and Pacific $6.6 billion (18.7%), Latin America and Mexico $2.7 billion (7.7%), Western Europe $2 billion (5.6%), Middle East and North Africa $1.7 billion (4.7%), and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia $570.2 million (1.6%).

An encouraging development in Africa in recent years has been the growth of African foundations. Often patterned on Western foundations, they have been established by some of the continent’s wealthiest individuals and largest companies. Thus, the exponential growth of high net worth individuals (HNWIs), those with net assets of more than $1 million, has provide propitious grounds for the expansion of African institutional philanthropy.

According to the World Wealth Report 2018, in 2017 the size of HNWIs in Africa reached 169,970 with a combined wealth of US$1.7 trillion (0.9% out of the 18.1 million HNWIs globally and 2.4% out of $70.2 trillion global HNWI wealth). The leading HNWI regions were Asia-Pacific (34.1% and 30.1%, North America 31.3% and 28.2%, and Europe 7.3% and 7.8%, respectively). Predictably, African foundations are heavily concentrated in South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, Africa’s three largest economies. Their current aggregate giving is $2 billion, typically in the $20,000-$25,000 range. They mostly focus on service delivery, poverty reduction, and infrastructure support. Education is low on their list of priorities, and higher education hardly features.

The World Bank report referred to above notes, “With a few exceptions, fund raising has not been a major priority in all Kenyan public universities until now, on the assumption that resources are limited throughout the economy and that philanthropy is not part of the national culture. However, international experience shows that, even in resource-constrained countries, universities can find a few rich companies and individuals— locally and among members of the diaspora—that can be convinced to make financial contributions to universities if they are approached and presented with good reasons to support the universities.”

Until recently, fundraising among European universities was also underdeveloped. The World Bank report continues, “Even though the economic conditions may be substantially different from those prevailing in Kenya, the fact that European universities are new to fund raising makes their experience relevant. The most important lesson is that success in fund raising is influenced by (a) the prestige and reputation of universities as proxies of their quality, (b) the existence of continuous relationships with different types of donors in the context of a solid fundraising strategy, and (c) the geopolitical context of the institution.”

“With a few exceptions, fundraising has not been a major priority in all Kenyan public universities until now, on the assumption that resources are limited throughout the economy and that philanthropy is not part of the national culture…”

Clearly, there is need for creating enabling conditions at the national level in terms of policy and legislation. As African governments increasingly recognise the important role philanthropy can play in fostering development, they are passing non-profit laws that affect the philanthropic sector. In Kenya, this includes legislation applicable to public benefit organisations (PBOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), companies limited by guarantee, including non-profit organisations (NPOs), societies, and trusts. Tax laws make provisions for tax exemptions for PBOs and NPOs, deductibility of charitable donations and value-added taxes.

But according to a Kenyan expert on the subject, “The legal status of philanthropic institutions is imprecise and there are very few incentives for either corporate or individual giving…Of particular concern is the fact that there is no legislative mechanism to distinguish between philanthropic institutions and other civil society organisations, or to distinguish among different kinds of philanthropic institutions…For instance, corporate foundations and community foundations are in the same legal category despite their significant differences in goals, operations, and governance. The process of claiming tax exemption deductions in Kenya is rigorous, burdensome, and time-consuming for the donor.”

The financial and other challenges facing contemporary higher education around the world require universities to become more nimble, adaptable, and entrepreneurial by carefully balancing the enduring mission of higher education and the emerging demands and disruptions. They have to constantly review their value proposition, and the organisation and delivery of their core functions of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement, as well as in the provision of ancillary and essential operations and services.

Disruption and change

In the 2019 Almanac of Higher Education published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a sponsored essay that notes, “The pace of change in the world and workplace is accelerating, and every industry, including higher education, is being disrupted. Disruption and change create new opportunities for entrepreneurship. Colleges and universities that cultivate a multidimensional entrepreneurial ecosystem can position themselves to thrive in a challenging and changing marketplace….Entrepreneurial leaders are nimble, opportunity-driven, innovative, problem-solvers, and growth-oriented.”

Five ways are suggested to develop an entrepreneurial university ecosystem. First, embracing experimentation and not being afraid to fail and learning from failure in a continuously iterative and action-oriented process. Second, creating a culture of inquisitiveness, innovative and critical thinking at all levels, and normalising transformational thinking by rewarding entrepreneurial managers, employees, and administrators. Third, encouraging collaboration internally by breaking silos and through strategic partnerships externally. Fourth, creating powerful lifelong connections and a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem that will sustain institutions, stakeholders and society. Finally, developing the propensity to recognise opportunities by paying keen attention to market changes and demands for new forms of learning and skills in the economy and society.

Financing higher education is of grave concern to well-meaning governments and political leaders, and university administrators and managers: how to provide high quality teaching and learning and student support services in an era of tight and even declining resources, in addition to promoting the two other traditional missions of higher education, namely, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement.

“The pace of change in the world and workplace is accelerating, and every industry, including higher education, is being disrupted. Disruption and change create new opportunities for entrepreneurship…”

And now there is a fourth mission that is increasingly emphasised—universities as hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. Higher education institutions also have to increasingly navigate the digital disruptions of the 4th Industrial Revolution, changing student demographics, escalating national, regional and global competition, growing demands for accountability, and questions about the value proposition of university education from accreditation agencies, the general public, the students themselves and their parents. There are also governance challenges with the expansion and pluralisation of internal and external stakeholders in university affairs.

All these pressures are an integral part of the financial and structural crises facing universities. They demand clear and collective understanding, smart and strategic interventions, as well as creativity and imagination to turn the constellation of challenges to the flip side of opportunities. Universities are notoriously conservative institutions. Woodrow Wilson, who served as President of Princeton before becoming President of the United States, reportedly said, “It is easier to change the location of a cemetery, than to change the school curriculum.”

In other words, resistance to change in academia is deeply rooted. It is often bolstered by alumni for whom their college years are often imbued with wistfulness for their long receded youth. Nostalgia is a powerful human emotion, especially in times of rapid and frightful changes, but it’s no substitute for clarity of vision if universities are to survive let alone succeed in the 21st century with its massive and unforgiving technological, economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental disruptions and demands.

In short, the university of 2020 cannot be the university of 2010 or 2000, let alone earlier decades. It must be a university prepared for 2030, 2040 and beyond, duly mindful and prepared for the unpredictability of the future. We must create institutional cultures and mindsets of nimbleness, creativity, continuous learning and improvement, and data driven decision making.

Thus, lifelong learning is not simply an imperative for the successful students and graduates of the 21st century, but for the institutions of higher education themselves. Otherwise some universities, especially the weaker ones and those in poorer countries, will join the long trail of historical dinosaurs and relics. Remember Blockbuster, the video giant that didn’t see streaming services coming and was cast to the historical dustbin by Netflix? And Kodak, whose glorious supremacy in the photographic film market was upended by digital photography? Bookstores and other stores in city centers and malls were mauled by Amazon, and taxi and hotel businesses are being destabilised by online platforms. Higher education cannot be an exception. Indeed, as I noted in a plenary address entitled “The Challenges and Opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for African Universities,” delivered at the First National Higher Education Conference by Universities South Africa, in October 2019, the disruptions for higher education are already underway. This is evident in the emergence of new modes of delivery for teaching, learning and assessment. Also, universities are losing their monopoly over credentialing.

In a digitised economy, where continuous reskilling will become a constant, the college degree will cease to be a one-off certification of competence, and a convenient screening mechanism for employers. The unbundling of the degree is already underway with the rise of micro degrees, stackable credentials, joint undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the imperatives of interdisciplinary and inter-professional teaching and learning and qualifications.

Employers will increasingly come to use predictive analytics to identify and hire talent. They will demand life-wide and lifelong portfolios combining the 4Cs of contemporary education: the curriculum (class learning), campus (co-curricular activities), community (experiential learning and engagement), and commerce (skills and mindset for employability).

Financial resources and effective financial management are essential to navigate these challenges, seize the opportunities, and ensure institutional sustainability in a highly complex, competitive, and unpredictable world. The question is: How prepared are African and Kenyan universities and their numerous stakeholders for the brave new world of 21st century higher education?

This paper was originally prepared for presentation at Regional Knowledge Forum, Nairobi, February 17-18, 2019.

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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities

The quality of education in African universities has been steadily declining in the face of financial instability. This is having an impact on the employment prospects of graduates.

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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities
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Over the past several months, there have been numerous conferences on the state of higher education in Africa and around the world, some of which I’ve participated in and even given keynote addresses. From these conferences, and the increasingly frantic higher education media, it is clear that the spectre of financial instability and unsustainability haunts many universities in the developed and developing countries alike, from the United States to Kenya. The challenges are, of course, mediated by local contexts embedded in levels of development and socio-economic inequalities, prevailing political cultures and ideologies, institutional histories and capacities, and a confluence of other forces.

In the United States, the outlook for universities has largely been negative over the last decade. According to Moody’s, in its 2019 higher education outlook, “Increasing expenses outpace constrained revenue for most universities and colleges…owing to constrained tuition revenue growth, the main revenue stream for most universities and colleges…Colleges and universities will look to further control costs, which will lead to longer-term challenges related to programmatic and capital investment. For most colleges, rising labor costs, which are roughly 65%-75% of expenses, will remain the largest hurdle.”

Moody’s forecast for 2020: “The outlook for the US higher education sector has been changed to stable from negative,” underpinned by “revenue growth in the 3%-4% range over the next year or so, driven mainly by larger, comprehensive universities.” It continues: “Over the longer term, social risks will continue to transform the US higher education sector, with demographic changes presenting both challenges and opportunities…Governance will remain a key differentiator among higher education institutions…Those that are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and take appropriate action where necessary will fare better than those that remain reactive.”

In 2016, a report by Ernest & Young found that 800 institutions (largely concentrated among small universities and colleges excessively dependent on tuition) were facing the most serious risks. Some experts predict up to a quarter of American colleges will become extinct within a decade. Whether such predictions come to pass or not, the rate of closures has accelerated. Equally troubling is the staggering growth in student loan debt. In 2018, it reached $1.5 trillion, encompassing 44.2 million borrowers. This was higher than credit card debt. In fact, student debt is the second biggest source of household debt after mortgages in the United States.

The growth in student debt reflected changes in the financing model of American higher education, which is fueled by the neoliberal ideology unleashed by the Reagan administration and followed by successive administrations. Increasingly regarded as a private rather than public good, state funding for education declined, and student aid support shifted from grants to loans. Cash-strapped universities resorted to several strategies, including raising tuition and diversifying their revenue streams. On the expenditure side, they embraced cost-cutting, especially on tenure-stream (permanent) faculty employment, one of the largest expenses for universities.

Between 1980 and 2018 tuition grew by 213% at public institutions and 129% at private ones. This was higher than the growth in wages or the rate of inflation. Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018. More than a hundred people owed over $1 million compared to 14 people in 2013! And more than 3 million people aged 60 and above owed over $86 billion. The crippling burden of college tuition has risen to the top of the political agenda in the Democratic Party’s primaries for the 2020 US presidential election. As can be expected in such a racialised society, black graduates have more debt than their white counterparts.

As for faculty, the proportion of tenure-track faculty declined precipitously while that of contingent faculty rose, reaching 73% of all faculty in American colleges and universities in 2016, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. The remuneration and working conditions of contingent faculty are often abysmal; they typically don’t have benefits and some make less than the minimum wage. The academic media is full of heartbreaking stories about some contingent faculty subsisting on food stamps and making less than teenagers working in fast food joints.

Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018.

The expansion of the lumpen-professoriate of contingent faculty weakens the academy as a whole. It hurts students because these faculty are often hired by the hour, not given institutional support, and tend not to participate in departmental affairs, all of which deprives students of robust faculty engagement. It also undermines all faculty by threatening the integrity of faculty work, limiting the distribution of faculty service responsibilities, creating hierarchies among faculty, and eroding academic freedom, which vulnerable contingent faculty are hardly in a position to exercise.

The case of the US underscores the fact that financial challenges and their implications for students and faculty and the entire higher education enterprise are not confined to the Global South. This should be both a source of solace and sobriety for African universities. Solace because it shows that the challenges are not peculiar to African countries and higher education institutions. Sobriety because we cannot import turnkey solutions from elsewhere. Rather, we must think strategically, smartly, and systematically and devise solutions that will ensure financial stability and sustainability for our institutions.

Kenya’s bankrupt universities

In Kenya, it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of the country’s universities are virtually bankrupt. Many are unable to pay salaries on time, remit statutory obligations for health and pensions, or provide adequate faculty, teaching and learning facilities, as well as student accommodation and support services. The Kenyan media is replete with stories about the billions of shillings public universities, including some of the largest and oldest ones, owe in statutory obligations and to their service providers.

The financial challenges facing most African universities, including those in Kenya, arise from the fact that they are primarily dependent on tuition. There is a mismatch between the rising demand for education, which is escalating because of the continent’s youth bulge, and the ability of students to pay the full costs of a quality university education, as well as the absorptive capacity of institutions to provide student aid. As public funding per university student has generally declined, while instructional costs have increased, both the universities and students suffer, which is reflected in falling quality and standards.

It becomes a vicious cycle: poor quality education undermines graduate employability, which burdens families and undermines their capacities to recover investments already made in education and to cover any future costs. This serves to reinforce questions about the value proposition of higher education. It helps explain the extreme sensitivities about tuition increases among students and their parents or guardians.

The fact of the matter is that notwithstanding the hype about Rising Africa/Africa Rising, one of whose indicators is ostensibly the expansion of the middle classes, the majority of students in African universities are from lower middle income, working class and peasant backgrounds. Upper middle income and rich families tend to send their children abroad—to Europe, North America, and the emerging economies of Asia, such as India, Malaysia, and China—because they have little confidence in the quality of local universities. This is well articulated in a story in the Business Daily of May 6, 2019, entitled “Local universities are facing serious crisis of confidence.” Those who vote with their wallets for their children’s education abroad often includes parents who were educated at local universities, at least for their first degrees.

It becomes a double jeopardy for Kenyan universities: they are unable to attract students from their own countries and foreign students with the ability to pay for the full costs of high quality university education. African universities are not serious players in the lucrative international student market. Out of the 5.09 million internationally mobile students in 2018, Africa accounted for a mere 4.39% per cent of inbound students, but 10.26% of outbound students. The financial situation of universities in Kenya has been compounded by student demographics in terms of the number of students qualifying for university entry. For the past four years, the pool of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) students qualifying for university entrance has been historically low.

In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above. The available capacity in the country’s 74 universities in 2019 was 145,338, and in 2020 it is 193,878. Thus, the proportion of qualified students from the 2018 and 2019 KCSE results was 62.44% and 64.86%, respectively, of available capacity. As late as 2015, before the clampdown on cheating and other fraudulent behaviour in national exams, out of the 521,240 candidates who sat for the KCSE examinations, 32.52% or 169,492 got C+ and above. This has resulted in fierce competition among the country’s universities for the limited pool of qualified candidates, which affects their financial bottom line.

Financial constraints affect the ability of Kenyan universities to train, attract and retain qualified faculty. The core business of universities is teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and public engagement and service. Recruitment and retention of top-rate academics is, therefore, imperative. Kenya suffers from acute shortages of faculty and the graduate student pipeline is severely limited. The yearly production in Kenya of PhDs is about 700, below the government target of 1,000. Not surprisingly, only 34% of faculty in Kenyan universities have terminal degrees (my university, USIUAfrica, is an outlier with 73%). The Cabinet Secretary of Education was quoted in the Daily Nation on May 8, 2019 saying that “less than 10 per cent of PhD holders are qualified”. This was attributed to the prevalence of academic fraud, in which contract cheating is rampant. In fact, Kenya reportedly enjoys the dubious distinction of being a leading global centre of contract cheating.

In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above.

Even more critical is the growing discrepancy between the growth in student enrolments and faculty. Between 2011 and 2018, while student enrolments increased fivefold, the number of academics teaching in Kenyan public universities only grew by 13%. Consequently, faculty-student ratios have risen, which in some public universities are close to 1:70. This has severely affected the quality of education and research productivity. In most universities, many of the often overworked and poorly paid faculty are forced into adjuncting, and they rely on outmoded pedagogical practices and curricula. Moreover, student learning is frequently interrupted by employee strikes and student demonstrations.

Higher education is critical to the development of high-level human capital essential for economic growth and sustainable development. Two measures of the contribution of higher education are especially important. One is the employability of university graduates, and the other is research productivity and impact. In African Economic Outlook 2020, the African Development Bank provides a sobering reading on Africa’s unpreparedness for the jobs of the future because of the low quality of its educational systems. The problem cuts across the educational ladder. According to the report, “Many African countries have yet to catch up with the rest of the world in basic skills and education…African students have lower average test scores than students in other world regions. Against global harmonized test scores ranging from 300 to 625, the average African student scored only 374 in 2017.” It is universally acknowledged, that human capital is a key driver of economic growth, but “Human capital contributes less to labor productivity and economic growth in Africa than in other developing regions. This is due partly to the low quality of education, lack of complementary physical capital, and widespread skill and education mismatches.”

The report urges African governments (advice that applies to universities as well) to make strategic choices to build the workforce of the future. “African countries will need to anticipate and build a flexible and productive workforce to meet future challenges. To strengthen worker employability, firm productivity, and inclusive growth, African countries need a national strategy for education and skill development.” The report notes, “A poorly skilled and educated labor force is typically the top constraint mentioned by global executives when considering manufacturing investments in Africa.”

Furthermore, “Because ‘soft skills’ are likely to become increasingly important, education and training institutions should be encouraged to inculcate and reinforce positive values, starting with young children. These attributes include a strong work ethic, honesty, tolerance, respect for authority, punctuality, and pursuit of excellence. These are the intangible characteristics of a high-quality workforce.” Massive investments are required for building educational infrastructure, and in addition to soft skills, the development of critical future skills includes job-specific digital skills, job-neutral digital skills, and ancillary skills related to manufacturing.

Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking” ( a term used in Kenya to refer to the unemployed and underemployed). In fact, in much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment tends to be higher than for secondary school and vocational college graduates. According to one report, a survey by the Federation of Kenya Employers laments, “at least 70 per cent of entry-level recruits require a refresher course in order to start to deliver in their new jobs.” Further, it notes a study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa that “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63 per cent of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61 per cent of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55 per cent and 52 per cent of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51 per cent of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”

The conundrum African countries face is that they have low levels of tertiary enrollments, yet their graduates have limited employability opportunities. In 2017, the gross enrollment ratio of Kenya stood at 11.7%, which was below the African average of about 14%, but above the sub-Saharan average of 9%. North Africa accounted for 45% of all African students in tertiary institutions, giving the region an enrolment ratio of 34%, just below the world average ratio of 38%. The enrolment ratio of high income countries was 77%, for middle income countries 52%, and lower middle income countries 24.4%. The enrolment ratios for South Korea and Singapore were a staggering 93.8% and 83.9%, respectively. Kenya hopes to reach a gross enrolment ratio of 15% by 2030. Essential employability qualities (EEQ) go beyond subject knowledge and technical competence.

Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking”…

Acquisition of soft skills is paramount. Graduates with EEQ are good communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers, inquirers and researchers, collaborators, adaptable, principled and ethical, responsible and professional, and continuous learners. Cultivation of employability skills raises questions about curriculum design, assessment, and teaching methods. It entails the intersection of the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces for a holistic educational experience.

The classroom requires a transforming pedagogy, adequate learning resources, curricular relevance, balance between theory and practice, passionate and enthusiastic teachers with high expectations, and motivated students. The campus needs robust career services, extra-curricular activities, student engagement, employer involvement, and innovation incubators. And the community contributes through the provision of internships and service learning opportunities.

Low R&D levels

The second mission of universities, through which they make invaluable contributions to the economy and society, is knowledge production through research and scholarship. The low levels of research and development (R&D) among African countries are well known. On average African countries spend 0.5% of their GDP on R&D, compared to a world average of 1.7%, and account for less than 1.5% of global R&D expenditures. Unlike other world regions, much of the R&D in Africa comes from foreign agencies and foundations, not national governments and the local private sector.

Other research indicators are no less disconcerting. According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest). The other glaring challenge of research in African countries and universities is its external orientation in terms of focus and outlets. While the world average of publication with external authors was 24.9%, for Africa it was 64.6%

(compared to 26.1% for Asia). Thus, like our dependent economies, African scholarship suffers from what I call epistemic extraversion. No wonder the rankings of African universities are the lowest in the world.

Kenya spends about 0.8% of its GDP on R&D, which is among the highest on the continent. The country’s research output is also relatively high compared to other African countries. In 2018, citable documents per one million inhabitants was 565.1, higher than Ghana’s 565.1, and Nigeria’s 366.2, but far below South Africa’s 4,233.5. Much of this research comes from the numerous research agencies and networks located in Kenya and a few universities.

According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest).

It is critical for African countries and universities to develop effective research policies, and support and reward systems. Also critical is promoting modalities of research collaboration that are transformative in terms of interdisciplinarity, interprofessionalism, and internationalization. No less important is ensuring a productive balance between pure and applied research, and addressing theoretical and analytical issues, as well as pressing challenges as identified in national, regional, and global agendas, such as Kenya’s Vision

2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

In many of the developed and leading emerging economies, research grants constitute an important source of revenue for universities. It is also quite common for such institutions to have endowed professorships held by some of their most distinguished research faculty, which further brings additional resources and relieves the operational budget of significant employee costs. As far as I’m aware, endowed professorships or chairs do not exist in most African universities. Also, research grants that not only bring administrative overheads, but also supplement faculty income, do not constitute a major source of institutional revenues.

Clearly, Kenyan and universities in other African countries need to develop more reliable and robust revenue streams.

In the second part of this article, I will discuss the various revenue-generating options that African universities are or should be adopting.

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