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People of Africa

Education

Africans value education, and all governments see improving educational access and quality as essential to national economic and political development. Despite scarce financial resources, many countries have made noteworthy achievements in raising literacy rates in recent decades. Adult literacy rates of 70 percent or more are characteristic of East, Central, and southern Africa, except, notably, in Somalia, Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Gains have been less impressive in West Africa: Many countries still have literacy rates below 60 percent, and the rates in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone are among the world’s lowest. Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria are notable exceptions, with particularly high literacy rates. Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria in North Africa have rates of 90 percent or higher. Females have significantly lower literacy rates than males across most of Africa.

Compulsory school attendance, starting at either 6 or 7 years of age and lasting until the ages of 11 to 16, is now universal in Africa. In many instances, education is free. A major obstacle to universal education is the problem of providing enough teachers, schools, and classroom materials to meet children’s needs, especially in remote rural areas. Huge national debts, the economic austerity measures designed to eliminate them, and military expenditures have all limited the funds that most countries have available to devote to education. Another obstacle to ensuring that all children receive education is the fact that they are still an important part of the workforce across Africa. They provide childcare, work farms and herds, and perform a range of other menial jobs, such as drawing water and collecting firewood. Parents may also lack the financial means to send their children to school, or may be forced to choose which ones can go and which ones cannot. Boys are usually given preference over girls in access to education and they typically stay in school much longer. The rationale for this is based on future income-earning potential: As matters currently stand, males have access to more and better paying jobs than females. Deteriorating economic conditions have actually led the income-earning and literacy gaps between males and females to widen even more.

Universities have space for only a tiny fraction of secondary school graduates and competition to secure admittance is intense. Those who are admitted are not guaranteed a good education, however. University libraries are often poorly stocked and, most critically, lack up-to-date scientific journals. Computers are few and Internet access rare. Most campuses were built in the 1950s and 1960s and have deteriorated, the more so because of limited funds for maintenance. The quality of higher education is also affected by frequent student protests over issues ranging from poor living conditions to politics. On many occasions governments have responded with force and closed campuses for considerable periods of time. While faculties are usually of high quality, with many members having been trained in Europe and North America, the conditions severely constrain what they can do. As a result, many look outside Africa for employment, which contributes significantly to Africa’s brain drain.

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