Chris Adebola*, a Nigerian student of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, had to work multiple jobs after high school in Nigeria to save up for college before relocating to live with his uncle in Ghana. Even then, it wasn’t enough to cover all his expenses, and he had to take out student loans. “As a result, I’m now facing significant debt as I try to complete my degree,” Adebola told Edugist. “I’m not alone in this struggle; many students face the same challenges.”
The struggle to pay for higher education is a reality that many African students face, and it is a problem that doesn’t receive enough attention. For many African students, the desire to pursue higher education is strong due to an understanding of the value of education and how it can change lives. However, the financial burden that comes with attending college can be overwhelming.
In many African countries, the cost of tuition and living expenses is much higher than the average income. For context, protests against the rising cost of living in Kenya recently led to the death of a university student. In South Africa, earlier in March, university students were protesting the continuously rising cost of higher education.
South Africa, which has a long history of inequality, has as one of its most pressing issues the rising cost of higher education. In recent years, the cost of attending university in South Africa has rocketed, putting higher education out of reach for many students. For most African families, this means inability to afford to pay for their children’s education without sacrificing other basic needs or even taking out loans.
Like Adebola, Tolani George* also worked multiple jobs, but during her postgraduate study at the University of Ibadan. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, made things worse for George. She lost her sources of income, making it even harder to afford higher education.
“I lost my money making avenues—all of it,” said George. “The pandemic really took a lot from me. It took my jobs, disrupted my academic schedules, causing delays in graduation and made the cost of education even higher.”
Dearth of financial aid, scholarships
The problem is compounded by the fact that many African universities have little or no financial assistance and scholarships in important aspects of education like research grants and concessionary loans. This means that students have to rely on private loans or other forms of financing, which can come with high-interest rates and stricter repayment terms.
A 500-level student of engineering at a private university in Nigeria who does not wish to be named secured financial aid to fund her education. Her happiness was cut short when she found out that the aid would not cater to her course materials and inevitable dues and many other miscellaneous costs associated with attending the university.
As part of his plans for the education sector, Nigeria president-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu proposes to institute education loans and credits for higher education students. This, according to Tinubu, would enable the autonomy of universities to self-govern. The true implication of this, however, may be an exponential increase in tuition fees as experts deem scholarships, bursaries and grants the more viable options.
Mental well-being concerns
The struggle to afford higher education can take a toll on a student’s mental health and well-being. Many students face stress and anxiety, wondering how they will pay for their education and what will happen if they can’t. For George, she gets overwhelmed with anxiety when a session approaches end as a result of the nearness of the payment for the following academic year.
Adebola asserted a similar condition. “Oftentimes, it [financial struggle] has led me to financial stress and makes it hard for me to focus on studies.”
One of the main drivers of the rising cost of higher education is the chronic underfunding of the sector. This underfunding has been exacerbated by the continent’s struggling economy and inflation challenges, which has led to a decline in government revenue and a decrease in public investment in education.
The increasing demand for higher education is another factor. As the population continues to grow, so too does the number of students seeking admission to tertiary institutions. However, the number of available spaces at these institutions has not kept pace with this demand, leading to increased competition for admission and rising tuition fees.
There have been efforts to address the rising cost of higher education in Africa with increased funding in recent years [pdf], but this funding has not been enough to keep up with the growing demand for higher education. Additionally, some universities have implemented measures such as bursaries and scholarships to help low-income students cover the cost of attending university.
There have also been protests and demonstrations by students calling for free higher education in Africa as earlier established. These protests have been met with mixed reactions from the government and the public, with some arguing that free higher education is not financially sustainable.
‘Access to higher education, a priority for Africa’s development’
The struggle to afford higher education is a significant issue that African students face. The cost of tuition and living expenses can be overwhelming, and many families cannot afford to pay for their children’s education without taking out loans or sacrificing other basic needs. The limited availability of scholarships and financial aid only exacerbates the problem. Despite these challenges, African students remain determined to pursue higher education which is deemed key to unlocking potentials and achieving dreams.
In a London School of Economics (LSE) publication, authors Ikenna Acholonu and Sosseh Njie, both LSE alumni, established that access to higher education is a priority for Africa’s development.
With fewer students able to afford higher education, Africa’s workforce becomes less skilled and less competitive on the global stage. This can have long-term consequences for Africa’s economic growth and development, which could lead to a situation where access to higher education is determined by a student’s socio-economic background, rather than their academic potential. Students from low-income families are particularly affected, as they are less likely to be able to afford the tuition fees and living expenses associated with attending tertiary institutions. Nevertheless, the resilience African students show is a testament to the value placed on education in the continent.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of mentioned persons