Construction workers learn to make clay roofing tiles at Nyumbani Village in Kenya

Construction workers learn to make clay roofing tiles at Nyumbani Village in Kenya

One of the most effective methods of investing in people to develop human capabilities is increasing human capital. Human capital is an intangible asset consisting of the competencies, knowledge and personality attributes that allow individuals and populations to perform tasks that produce economic value. These attributes are gained through experience and education. Evidence from many studies suggests that increased well-being and the reduction of poverty are linked to increased human capital, in addition to improved institutions and better governance.

Increasing educational attainment levels is the most direct way to increase human capital. Low educational achievement is endemic in impoverished populations. In most developing nations, low educational attainment levels are believed to be caused by inadequate capacity and low quality in the education systems at all levels. Improving and expanding these systems is critical to increasing enrollment, retention, and attainment levels.

While primary and secondary education is vital to human development, in the modern knowledge-based economy the knowledge and skills necessary to increase human capital are built at the tertiary level. Tertiary education includes a diverse set of public and private tertiary institutions—colleges, technical training institutes, community colleges, nursing schools, distance learning centers and many more. A broad network of institutions is required to support the production of the higher-order human capital necessary for poverty reduction.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, qualified human capital remains scarce compared to the continent’s development needs. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa has markedly low educational attainment levels and the world’s lowest enrollment rates, especially at the tertiary level.

The quality of tertiary education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa has actually declined in recent decades. The causes include a decline in per unit costs (from US$6,800 in 1980 to US$1,200 in 2002); poor governance; and insufficient numbers of qualified academic staff in education institutions as the result of retirement, HIV/AIDS and brain drain.

Compounding the problem, Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest emigration rate of skilled workers, and the figure is rising: the percentage of tertiary-educated emigrants from the region increased from 23 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2000. The loss of educated workers hinders growth and undermines the foundation for sustainable human development.

Given this set of factors, improving tertiary education systems should be high on Sub-Saharan Africa’s development agenda. African tertiary education institutions and policy makers must ensure that the workforce acquires the skills to compete, innovate and respond to complex social, environmental and financial issues.

Education Enrollment Rates in East Africa (%)

In recent decades there has been considerable effort to increase access to education in East Africa. Much of this effort has focused on primary and secondary education, and as a result enrollment rates have increased. Despite some recent improvement, enrollment rates in higher education in East Africa remain very low, even by Sub-Saharan Africa standards. This is primarily due to a lack of student capacity at the higher education institutions in the region.

Furthermore, the East African higher education system lacks diversity in that most of the institutions are universities. A broader network of tertiary institutions - colleges, technical training institutes, community colleges, nursing schools, distance learning centers, and many more - is required to support the production of the wide range of human capabilities necessary for poverty reduction and national development.