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Global university enrolments overwhelm govts – UNESCO

A frequent lamentation these days is that universities are not preparing graduates to take on the rigours of the job market. However, as a new report shows, it may be the reverse. As MOSES TALEMWA writes, the market is simply too small to absorb the large number of graduates coming out every year.

Every time someone raises the claim that graduates are not ready to take on the rigours of the market, Dr Mouhamed Mpezamihigo protests. Mpezmihigo, who is vice chancellor of Kampala International University (KIU), insists the statement is built on a fallacy.

“If you see the number of graduates coming out of our universities every year and compare with the number of jobs created in the same period, then you appreciate why many of them can’t get jobs,” he says.

He adds that the vast majority of graduates do not need much training to start on the job after graduation. Now Mpezamihigo’s contentions are backed by a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Unesco’s latest Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report, titled ‘Analysing global trends in higher education’ shows that the number of university-level students globally has doubled from 207 million in 2000 to over 414 million in 2014.

The report says the increment has left governments and economies struggling to keep pace with rapidly rising demand for higher education. Consequently, large disparities in access and the large cost of university education often fall onto families, many of which cannot afford.

“Demand for higher education is going to continue rising. Governments must respond by introducing a range of new policies that will ensure the expansion doesn’t leave the marginalised behind, and that access is based on merit, not privilege,” Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, said.

The report dwells on the cost of higher education and also sheds light on the challenges facing students after they graduate. While the governments are struggling to increase access to higher education, they are also unprepared to establish employment avenues for these graduates. 

“Affirmative action through quota or bonus systems may be necessary to expand job access for underrepresented groups, however controversial this may be,” the report concludes.


The report surveys trends in university admissions across countries. In South Africa, around a sixth of blacks and coloureds attended higher education in 2013, compared to over a half of whites. Similarly, in Mexico, less than one per cent of the indigenous population attends higher education. In China, youth from rural areas are seven times less likely to attend university than students from urban areas.

Access to higher education has expanded most rapidly in wealthier countries: only eight per cent of young adults are enrolled on average in the poorest countries, compared to 74 per cent in the richest countries. The greatest gender disparities are found among the poorest countries as well. Women made up only 30 per cent of bachelor’s students in low-income countries in 2014.

Across 26 countries in Europe, households paid for 15 per cent of the cost of higher education in 2011. In other high-income countries, household expenditures were even higher: 40 per cent in Australia, 46 per cent in the USA, 52 per cent in Japan, and 55 per cent in Chile.

The report shows that private colleges and universities have expanded in most parts of the world to cater to the growing pool of students, enrolling 30 per cent of all students worldwide, rising to 50 per cent in Latin America.


Analysing global trends, the Unesco report lists six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind. It calls on governments to use a combination of policies aimed at helping the disadvantaged, such as low tuition fees, need-based scholarships and loans repayments adjusted according to income, to help families manage the costs.

It draws on a range of examples to show how different countries are expanding and diversifying higher education offerings to achieve greater equity.

“The last thing we want is for higher education to be the ball and chain around students’ ankles,” said Aaron Benavot, director of the GEM report. “Coping with dramatic student expansion is not easy, but there are policy solutions governments can put into place to stop the [entire] bill falling [onto] households.”

The report makes six specific recommendations to make higher education equitable and affordable for all, as shown below.


Reflecting on several points made in the report, Dr Mpezamihigo is concerned that there is very little in the way of measures to mitigate the budding crisis. He foresees a situation where demand for higher education will continue to outstrip the facilities in universities, while job market growth remains far behind.

“The economy is not growing at the same level as is required to absorb all the graduates who are lucky enough to get through university,” Mpezamihigo says. “While no one is saying much about [this issue], it should be on many minds with the view to finding viable solutions that will sustain harmony and development in the years to come.”


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