The rapid expansion of universities in Africa has damaged teaching quality and undermined research activity, the World Bank has warned.
In a hard-hitting report, the World Bank sets out the problems afflicting higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although funding for the region's universities is relatively high in terms of international standards as a proportion of gross domestic product, the investment is poorly focused, the report says. Money has not gone to the most-needed disciplines, nor has it adequately supported research as governments have struggled to cope with soaring enrolments.
Rapid expansion in the past 15 years has only contributed to the sector's woes even as overall participation rates remain stubbornly low.
"Too rapid an increase in enrolments has eroded quality and is undermining the contribution of tertiary education to growth," the report says.
Between 1991 and 2005, enrolments tripled, with average annual growth of 8.7 per cent. However, between 1980 and 2005, annual public funding fell from an average of $6,800 (£4,590) per student to $981 in 33 low-income African countries.
This, the report says, led to a drop in the standard of education at a time when the sector was also being damaged by its uneven attention to quality assurance and the needs of industry and by governance problems.
"Rapid expansion channelled students disproportionately into less expensive 'soft' disciplines and siphoned off research funding to cover the costs of more students.
"In 2004, just 28 per cent of students were enrolled in science and technology fields, and research output faded as Africa devoted just 0.3 per cent of GDP to it," the study says.
As a result, the number of postgraduate students fell, stunting the next generation of Africa's academics. Meanwhile, the poor-quality graduates that universities were producing led to a soaring graduate unemployment rate, which currently exceeds 20 per cent in nine of the 23 countries that supplied data.
The "crisis" in academic staffing has been compounded, the World Bank says, by low salaries, declining staff-to-student ratios and a brain drain that has resulted in vacancy rates for university posts running at 25 to 50 per cent.
In this environment, the private sector has boomed, with the number of private higher education institutions growing from a handful to almost 500 since 1990.
To address these problems, the World Bank says a proper debate on public financing reforms is needed.
"The focus should be on using existing resources more efficiently," it says. "Numerous tertiary education reform efforts have been made in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, but their impact has been limited.
"Institutions need to consciously transform themselves into a different type of educational enterprise: networked, differentiated and responsive institutions focused on the production of strategically needed human skills and problem-solving research.
"If achieved, this would constitute a 21st-century version of the African 'development university'."
Obiageli Ezekwesili, the World Bank's vice-president for the Africa region, added: "Even though social and political demands call for ever-increasing enrolment rates in colleges and universities, these must be balanced against the need to raise the quality and relevance of education and research.
"Governments must develop strategies to produce graduates who can help lift the economies out of poverty. This is not just the remit of education ministries, it begins with finance ministers."