The race for higher education has proved so hard for countries in sub-Saharan Africa that the World Bank is reviewing its education programmes in the region.
The average university enrolment rate is below 5 per cent, and there are acute staff shortages in technology, sciences and medicine.
With a few notable exceptions, most universities have no postgraduate programmes. "Almost 90 per cent of PhD candidates from sub-Saharan Africa are in foreign universities," says David Court, a World Bank senior education specialist.
Dr Court, a former researcher at the University of Nairobi, is on a special mission in eastern and southern Africa to increase awareness of how to revitalise higher education. He said the World Bank was keen to help universities initiate change. "Higher education in Africa is not a luxury, and universities should spearhead reforms towards greater participation."
Addressing senior academic staff from Kenya's five public universities, he said the quality of education provided by most universities has suffered as a result of a massive brain drain. The World Bank estimates that more than 30,000 PhD holders from sub-Saharan Africa are educational migrant workers in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, including the US and Canada.
Falling academic salaries, frequent university closures linked to student unrest and repressive government intervention have made lecturers flee universities, which have consequently employed faculty members without postgraduate training or experience.
"Nearly everywhere," Dr Court said, "students have no textbooks and lecturers must dictate notes or copy on chalkboards."
In eastern and central Africa, prominent universities with severe staff retention problems include the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Zambia and Copperbelt universities in Zambia; Zimbabwe University; and Egerton University in Kenya.
The crisis goes beyond staff loss and retention. With the exceptions of Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana, higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is under the tight control of governments that do not recognise its benefits and see it as reserved for the elite.
Recognition for higher education by the World Bank will encourage countries to put their tertiary education into a global context. "Exhaustive reforms leading to autonomy of universities will be central to attracting funding," said Dr Court.