In this entry, we describe the context of education in Africa and how improving both the level and quality of education can impact the continent’s development trajectory. We then present an education scenario that targets every level of the formal education flow and show the potential of education as a development accelerator.
- Better education is fundamental to economic development. However, things are progressing slower in Africa than elsewhere in the world and the continent is battling to improve both its level and quality of education.
- Africa’s educational funnel is leaky. Despite fairly high enrolment figures at the primary level, few students complete the full educational journey to graduate from upper secondary school to enter tertiary education or vocational training with confidence.
- Students in sub-Saharan Africa are consistently performing more poorly than in the rest of the world, with limited future improvement likely. The quality of education in the public schooling system is hampered by children being unprepared for learning because of poverty and malnutrition, teachers’ lack of skills, limited resources and facilities, and poor management.
- The Education scenario modelled targets every level of the formal education flow, from primary education enrolment to tertiary graduation. As the level and quality of education improve, Africa’s economies start to grow more rapidly, accelerating over time.
- The Education scenario could have a transformative impact on African economies and societies. However, it will require a concerted effort by governments, new ways of thinking and a rapid uptake of technology to rapidly improve education outcomes in Africa.
Education and prosperity go hand in hand, with the demand for unskilled labour decreasing and semi-skilled and skilled labour increasing across the world.
Investments in education increase the talent in the labour pool, raise productivity and boost economic growth and incomes. Beyond a certain basic level, a growing economy needs and has to incentivise education that provides additional skills and knowledge to meet the demand for productivity enhancements.
Research shows that each additional year of schooling is associated with an increase of nearly 0.6% in long-term gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates,  although the economic payoff is often only seen long after the initial investment in education. [ ]
Improvements in levels of education both precede and follow economic development. Generally, basic literacy and primary school education are a requirement for countries to graduate from low- to middle-income status. However, whereas in Europe and the US rising levels of education foreshadowed development, in Asia improvements in education beyond primary school levels generally accompanied more rapid economic growth. 
Between 1960 and 1980, the average length of education among the adult population in the East Asia and Pacific region increased by about 80%. The growth in GDP per capita tracked closely at about 85%. However, from 1980 to 2000, GDP per capita more than doubled, from about US$3 800 per person in 1980 to about US$8 400 per person in 2000, although the number of average years of education in the adult population in this period increased only by a third. 
In practice, the demand for appropriate levels and types of education to meet market demands shapes educational outcomes. Decision-makers’ investments in core knowledge and competencies (traditionally termed reading, writing and arithmetic) have to be complemented by strategies that anticipate future demands and envisioned opportunities.
Skilled labour tends to flow from poorer to richer countries rather than the other way around. This is part of the story of the African brain drain, where highly skilled African workers such as nurses, doctors and engineers often seek employment in higher-income countries. Recent data from AfroBarometer confirms that sub-Saharan African nations account for eight out of the ten fastest-growing international migrant populations since 2010. [ ] With this steady exodus, the education system in origin countries needs to work twice as hard. [ ]
Improving the general level of education takes time and reaping the economic returns takes even longer. A study by the Education Policy and Data Center found that it could take up to 150 years, or seven generations, to move from 10% adult primary school completion to 90% secondary school completion. The average length of the transition for the countries in the group was nearly 90 years.
However, rapid progress is possible, as the example from South Korea has shown. In a period of rapid economic growth in South Korea after the Korean War (the so-called Miracle on the Han River), the mean number of education years tripled in 55 years (from four years in 1960 to 12 years in 2015). By that time, South Korea had caught up with established Western democracies (e.g. the UK) and surpassed others (e.g. Sweden). It also achieved exceptional primary enrolment rates for 42 consecutive years, affirming the importance of getting the foundation right as part of an investment in the future.
Rather than simply sluggish growth, Africa actually experienced a decline in GDP per capita of about 12% between 1980 and 1990 and another 2% during the 1990s, before rebounding by about 30% in the first decade of the 2000s (see Current Path).
During this period, the continent also suffered stagnation or, in some cases, a relative decline in average years of adult education compared with other regions:
- During the 1960s and 1970s, adults 15 years and older in sub-Saharan Africa were, on average, better educated than people in South Asia, by a margin of nearly half a year of schooling. By 1995, South Asia had closed the education gap and by 2019, adults in South Asia could expect to receive more than seven years of education compared with just six years in sub-Saharan Africa.
- The average level of adult education in North America was already above 12 years in 2019. Whereas the average adult in North America has completed upper secondary school, the average adult in Central, East and West Africa does not have the equivalent of primary schooling.
Things are improving more slowly in Africa than elsewhere, even without considering the quality and relevance of the education provided.
The divergence in education between sub-Saharan Africa and other regions is driven by factors that relate to rates of economic growth, the policy to use non-African languages as the medium of instruction and low or skewed government expenditure on education.
To explore the trends in education in Africa, three aspects should be considered:
- the massive annual influx children into educational infrastructure and systems that are already struggling to deal with overcrowding and inefficient use of resources;
- the inability of many African countries to retain students in the education system; and
- the quality of education.
The education system can be viewed as a long funnel, with various cracks along the way. Many children enter the system at the mouth of the funnel, but few complete the entire journey — from primary to secondary school and then university — to eventually graduate with a tertiary or equivalent education at the other end.
To improve the level of education in a country, the goal is to increase successful completion rates along each segment of the funnel. A perfect system would be one where the previous narrowing funnel has changed to a straight pipeline without ‘leaks’, with the full complement of age-appropriate students entering at one end progressing to relevant higher education at the other end and one that provides for appropriate academic and practical skills training.
In Finland, generally considered the country with the best education system globally, the gross intake ratio to the last grade of primary school and lower secondary education is close to 100%. The completion rate in the lower secondary phase is 100% and almost 90% for upper secondary education. All Finns therefore complete at least lower secondary education, with a loss of only 10% by the end of the upper secondary phase.  The numbers drop off substantially only by tertiary education stage. By this standard, Africa will require successive generations of rapid progress.
Chart 2 presents the average proportion of the adult population in Africa that have completed primary, secondary and tertiary education compared with that in the rest of the world. Income groupings are presented separately. Although African countries constitute the majority of low- and lower middle-income countries, the continent trails in every level of adult education, indicating that the averages for the non-African groups would be significantly higher. Only in the portion of adults that have secondary education does Africa’s small number of upper middle-income countries exceed the global average (highlighted in yellow), largely owing to high levels of secondary education completion among adults in South Africa.
Although getting primary education right remains the top priority, Africa needs to attack all aspects of the educational funnel to ensure that it not only retains students at every level but also increases the progression rate to expand the pool of students at each successive level. This is generally the most cost-effective way to increase general levels of education throughout society and improve skills and potential as part of a comprehensive development strategy.
However, African countries often do not take a systematic approach. In a number of countries, a lot of funds and too much attention are spent on improving later education phases (e.g. upper secondary or even tertiary) without prioritising throughput at primary and lower secondary school levels.
Chart 3 shows that educational throughput in sub-Saharan Africa is very different from that in North Africa, South Asia and South America (latter two being the comparable regions used on this website), and consistently below world averages. Poor outcomes at either enrolment or completion are shown in orange or red, given the severity of the situation compared with other regions. Although not shown here, the situation at tertiary level is especially problematic.
Chart 3 should be understood in context:
- Enrolment numbers are gross figures, which include all students in a grade, irrespective of whether they are at the appropriate age. Students who are older than the grade average as well as those who are repeating the grade would therefore be included. The result is that percentages can exceed 100%.
- The completion rates represent the percentage of students who have completed the last grade of each level and include students up to five years above the intended age in the last grade. [ ]
- In contrast to gross numbers, net figures only include students at the appropriate age. For example, the gross enrolment rate for primary school in sub-Saharan Africa was 104% in 2019, but the net primary enrolment rate was only 77%. This indicates that a large number of children who are supposed to be in school are in fact not and that many classes are likely crowded by older children. Crowded classrooms have several negative consequences (e.g. a higher student-to-teacher ratio, insufficient availability of desks, books and equipment, etc.).
- Completion rates drop acutely from 72% in the primary phase to a mere 28% in the upper secondary phase in sub-Saharan Africa, indicative of a rapid contraction in the educational funnel. This contrasts markedly with the situation in North Africa, where upper secondary completion rates are at 60%.
- The chart shows official enrolment rates rather than actual school attendance rates. Attendance rates are sourced by asking households about school attendance as opposed to using information pulled from official registration data. In the majority of poor countries, enrolment rates are significantly higher than attendance rates as many children who are officially enrolled do not regularly attend school.
The fourth sustainable development goal (SDG) focuses on quality education and is closely related to the fifth goal on gender equality. In the Current Path forecast, Africa is set to miss its targets by 2030:
- At a gross enrolment rate of 107%, the continent will achieve only indicator 4.1.1a of this SDG (however, it will fall short of its net enrolment target by 12 percentage points, reminding us of the misleading nature of gross enrolment figures).
- Enrolment rates at secondary level and completion rates for both primary and secondary education will also remain well below the targets.
- Upper secondary graduation rates will fall short of the SDG target by almost 60 percentage points (38% for a target of 97%).
- Gender parity rates will improve but will also fall short of the 2030 targets.
Another set of statistics used to measure the general level of education in a country is to look at the mean level of adult education. The mean years of education for the five regions in Africa, as well as the global averages, are shown for age group 15–24 years in Chart 4 and for adults 25 years and older in Chart 5.
Average levels of education in North Africa are generally substantially higher than in other regions. Education levels in East Africa are expected to improve more than in Central Africa by 2043, with Kenya doing particularly well. Men are generally better educated than women, except in North Africa.
Progress in education levels in Africa is reflected by young people (15–24 years) often being better educated than their parents. Africa therefore also has a large intergenerational gap when it comes to education. The literacy and education rates for the youngest population group in poor countries can be up to three times higher than for the oldest population group. These large differences in outlook and expectations inevitably translate into discontent and even violence. [ ]
Although North Africa will continue to improve its education endowment on the Current Path, Southern Africa will stagnate relative to other regions, to the extent that even West Africa, currently well behind Southern Africa, could almost close the gap by 2043.
The main reason for Southern Africa’s slow improvement is that the level of adult education in South Africa and Angola is forecasted to remain stagnant. This is an alarming forecast for South Africa, the economic giant in the region, as it finds itself in a demographic sweet spot for growth given its favourable demographic dividend (see the theme on demographics ). Botswana will perform best in this region (and indeed on the continent), reaching almost 11 years of mean education by 2043.
South Africa is often used as an example of how to get education wrong. Instead of focusing on getting the basics right in the first two decades of democratic government, the rush to apply imported educational models with limited regard for the local context caused education levels to improve at a rate significantly lower than its potential.  South Africa is also forecast to achieve modest economic growth rates, and slow growth translates into limited revenues to invest in education, implying that future options are limited.
In summary, the gap in adult educational attainment between Africa and other developing regions is forecast to widen. By 2030, citizens in South Asia could expect to receive about eight full years of education whereas citizens in sub-Saharan Africa will only achieve about 6.2 years.
Against the concerning background outlined in the previous section, the rise of private education in Africa has become a source of hope for some and controversy for others.
Historically, private schools were often purely charitable undertakings, with mission schools providing education of a quality far higher than the colonial or segregated public school system at the time. However, today, the proliferation of private schools is associated less with charity, and more with government failures, commodification and profit seeking. 
The number of students in private schooling in Africa, in both aggregate and proportional terms, has been growing rapidly since the 1990s:
- Enrolments in private primary schools approximately doubled during the 1990s, while public school enrolments grew at approximately half that rate.
- By 2017, 19 sub-Saharan African countries had 20% or more of their primary and secondary school students being taught in non-state facilities.
- In Equatorial Guinea, 54% of its primary school students are in private schools.
- At 60%, Liberia has the largest proportion of secondary school students in private schools, followed closely by Mauritius (57%). [ ]
Much of the growth in the number of private educational institutions has been driven by foreign investors and also by the World Bank’s active promotion of private education through advice and lending.  The argument in favour of private education is that it fulfils a need which African governments have failed to meet, both with respect to quantity and quality of education across much of Africa. In some cases, private education appears to be providing a much needed quality service. In Kenya, for example, private education (previously viewed as an unnecessary extravagance) has become highly sought after. This is particularly so in the context of overcrowded public schools, where teachers can sometimes be expected to teach classes of up to 100 students, and where 40% of Grade 2 students were found to be illiterate or innumerate. Top schools in many countries, including Ghana and South Africa, are usually private schools, although they tend to serve a very small proportion of the population. [ ]
However, there is considerable criticism of and opposition to the mass roll-out of private education in Africa, as private education is seen to serve only a small proportion of the population, exacerbates inequality and diverts resources from the public education sector. The widening gap in achievement between the wealthy and the poor is not only driven by improvements in quality by private schools but also by a simultaneous drop in standards in public schools, seemingly because of these schools being neglected as the number of private schools in these jurisdictions increases. 
Private schools are often funded, at least in part, from public sources, through public–private partnerships, state subsidies, and financing from intergovernmental organisations. As such, rather than supplementing public education, they compete for resources (both in the form of finances and teaching talent), with surpluses being captured by private investors rather than being ploughed back into educational improvements. In this sense, critics claim that governments abdicate their legal and moral responsibility to provide quality public education for all at the expense of its poorest and marginalised students. 
Although many private schools in Africa consistently achieve high rankings in school achievement indices, there are also many that fail to provide better education than the public sector, while costing more. This can generally be ascribed to the loosening of regulations of private schools (historically championed by the IMF and the World Bank), which allow profit-seeking investors to run schools at extremely low cost, translating to inadequate resources and facilities and poorly qualified, underpaid teachers. 
African states cannot abdicate their responsibility to provide an essential public good to millions of poor citizens in favour of a profit-seeking private sector. However, this is not to say that private schools should not play a role. Critics acknowledge that there are jurisdictions, at least in Europe, where private education is providing a high-quality and accessible system of education. However, the development of carefully crafted regulations to prevent predatory practices by the private sector, as well as the continued need for states to properly fund, manage and regulate their public systems, are needed in parallel. 
Research suggests that there is a stronger correlation between educational quality and economic growth than between educational quantity and growth.  Although comparisons of quality are difficult across different cultural, economic and linguistic contexts, a number of international standardised tests have been developed in recent years to measure systemically, albeit imperfectly, learning outcomes at the primary and secondary school levels across countries. [ ] Using the result from these scores in IFs, charts 6 and 7 show that sub-Saharan Africa is consistently performing more poorly than the rest of the world, with little improvement being foreseen. The most comparable region, South Asia, is likely to leave sub-Saharan Africa behind and join South America, which is closer to the world average.
We know that learning starts slowly in low-income countries, where pre-schooling is mostly non-existent, and even students who make it to the end of primary school often do not master basic competencies. In fact, research shows that the average primary school student from a low-income country would be singled out for remedial attention on the basis of being below standard should they attend primary school in a high-income country. 
Recent attention has shifted to the importance of early childhood development (ECD) in laying a foundation for cognitive functioning, developing behavioural social and self-regulatory capacities, and physical health. Proper nutrition forms part of this approach, as it supports cognitive development. At the pre-primary level, appropriate education and curriculum, complemented by feeding programmes, lay the foundation for developing cognitive, behavioural, physical and social skills.
Many young African students cannot solve mathematical or reading problems appropriate for their grades yet complete schooling and eventually enter tertiary education. Even without ECD, the educational gap widens with each schooling level. Children who may have received good ECD programming but end up in a public school offering primary education that is largely characterised by overcrowding and a low teacher-to-student ratio (which speaks to a range of other problems in teacher training and attendance) will likely not excel. The main importance of ECD is to ensure that students get appropriate cognitive preparation to produce quality learning outcomes at each level of schooling, which is not fully captured by quantitative measures such as completion rates.
In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of students meet the minimum proficiency threshold that is used in the standardised testing, whereas the mean for developed countries is at 86%.  To put that in comparative context: when it comes to learning outcomes ‘the top-performing country in sub-Saharan Africa has a lower average score than the lowest-performing country in Western Europe.’ [ ] A 2017 report by the World Bank warned of a ‘learning crisis in global education’ following an analysis of reading, mathematics and science outcomes, and disheartening results for sub-Saharan Africa. [ ]
For the World Bank, the immediate causes of poor-quality education are fourfold: 
- Although school attendance is generally good in sub-Saharan Africa, many children arrive unprepared to learn because of illness, malnutrition or income deprivation (generally children from poor households learn much less).
- Teachers often lack the skills or motivation to teach effectively. Absenteeism among teachers is also rife. Many are present at school, but do not attend the class they are supposed to teach. Some even engage in a second (or third) job to support themselves and their families. As schools are short-staffed, teachers who do attend to their duties are inundated with administrative tasks. [ ]
- Inputs such as books and teaching material often fail to reach classrooms or to affect learning.
- Poor management and governance often undermine schooling quality.
The considerations relating to the quantity and quality of education mean that it is highly unlikely that Africa will meet its education targets for SDG 4, with Target 4.1 aimed at all children having access to ‘free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education’, as measured by a minimum proficiency in mathematics and reading. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on education in Africa. Even in South Africa, where the education sector is relatively well resourced and information and communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure is better developed than in many other countries, UNICEF  has estimated that the average student has lost between three-quarters and a full year of schooling, and up to half a million children have dropped out of school entirely since the beginning of the pandemic.
Economic inequalities have again become decisive, with wealthy students who have access to well-resourced schools and homes equipped with high-speed Internet having experienced minimal disruption to their programmes, while many rural and poor students without such resources lost access to school entirely. 
Countries with larger rural and extremely poor populations seem to have suffered most. In many countries, children have received no education at all during the COVID-19 pandemic, either because schools without facilities to teach remotely have closed entirely, or because of inadequate ICT infrastructure to allow students and teachers to log in to classes. Even when they were able to access lessons, the sudden shift undermined learning as students struggled to focus in a home setting, received inadequate personal attention through online classes, or as a result of the mental health consequences of lockdowns that, in some instances, lasted up to two years. Outside school, children were also more susceptible to exploitation in child labour, particularly girl children with respect to unpaid domestic work, further distracting them from their studies and undermining their fundamental rights. 
Although students around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher levels of poverty as well as the significant digital divide in Africa have rendered Africans particularly vulnerable. Internet access rates are very low in Africa compared with the rest of the world, with studies estimating that 60%–85% of African university students did not have the necessary devices or Internet access to continue online education. [leapfrogging ) and the integration of these technologies into education, including reskilling teachers.] This highlights the need for a greatly expanded roll-out of quality and affordable ICT infrastructure (see the theme on
Changing gender parity in education  is another important milestone on the road to improved education.
In sub-Saharan Africa, gender parity in education has improved over time but still trails regions such as North Africa, notwithstanding the bad reputation of the latter when it comes to the rights of girls and women. In 2019, the average woman of 25 years or older in sub-Saharan Africa received about 4.6 years of education compared with 6.1 years for every male. The gap is slightly smaller when looking at the age cohort 15–24 years: 6.7 years versus 7.2 years. In North Africa, female adults of 25 or older have more than 6 years of education, around 1.3 years less than their male counterparts. Those aged 15–24 have about 9.4 years of education compared with 8.9 years for their male counterparts.
Improving levels of educational attainment is a slow process. Leaving quality aside, it took sub-Saharan Africa 14 years (from 2001 to 2015) to increase the average number of years of education of women by one year. The global mean length of adult female education stood at 7.4 years in 2019 — a goal sub-Saharan Africa will achieve only in the second half of this century on the Current Path, at which point the global average will likely have increased to about 10 years. Although Africa is improving, there is no indication of Africa closing this gap with the rest of the world on the Current Path forecast.
Chart 8 provides a snapshot of the male-to-female ratio in education in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019:
- At primary level, 96 girls were enrolled in school for every 100 boys.
- The ratio worsens notably at the lower secondary level, with only 91 girls for every 100 boys.
- At upper secondary level there are only 87 girls for every 100 boys.
- At tertiary level, there are 78 female students for every 100 male students.
North Africa does better in each of these levels (see Chart 8). Gross enrolment at primary level is almost one to one and at upper secondary and tertiary levels, female enrolments outnumber that of males.
Central Africa does significantly worse than other regions at enrolling girls in primary school, whereas North and West Africa do best. Girls’ enrolment rates in both lower and upper secondary schooling are worst in Central Africa and are likely to deteriorate on the Current Path.
In 2019, adult women 25 years or older had three years less education than men in Somalia, the worst performing country in sub-Saharan Africa, and between two and three years less in ten other African countries. Only in Namibia, Lesotho, Gabon and Libya did adult women in this age group have more education than men.
In contrast, South American women 25 or older had, on average, slightly more education than their male counterparts, whereas in East Asia, Central Asia and Europe the gap between the mean years for male and female levels of education varies between about 0.9 and 0.97 years. Although women still get less education than men in these regions, levels are rapidly approaching equality. Only in South Asia do women face higher barriers to educational attainment than in sub-Saharan Africa (with a gap of 2.2 years between the mean for men and women in 2019), although South Asia will likely outperform sub-Saharan Africa in this respect by 2034. Given the link between female education and fertility, this difference explains, to a large degree, Africa’s high fertility rates (see the theme on demographics).
According to the Current Path forecast, sub-Saharan Africa could, on average, get within five percentage points of achieving its 2030 SDG indicators for primary level gross enrolment parity (female/male) index (indicator 4.5.1a), and within three percentage points of the primary level gross completion rate parity index (indicator 4.5.1b). Progress on the parity index at secondary level is also promising.
A recent study from the African Development Bank found that three main factors constrain rapid job creation in Africa: 
- Job creation has not kept pace with the number of graduates from secondary and tertiary institutions.
- Those who finish school are not equipped with the skills required by the available jobs.
- Young people generally lack the soft skills, social networks and professional experience to compete with older job applicants.
The Ghana-based African Center for Economic Transformation specifically noted that there is too little emphasis on relevant training in science, technology, engineering and maths, on technical and vocational education and training, and on higher-order cognitive and analytical skills. This leads to a considerable mismatch between job seekers’ actual skills and those that employers require. 
We know that education in Africa needs to respond to the demand to expand small-holder farming and agribusinesses (see the theme on agriculture), which will allow countries to enter low-end manufacturing (see the theme on manufacturing/transfers) and prepare for the rapid expanded use of modern systems and technologies (see the theme on leapfrogging) as digitisation and the fourth industrial revolution present new opportunities and risks for the future. The trend is away from low-skilled, and even semi-skilled, labour towards skilled labour.
Future job requirements differ from country to country and defy easy generalisation. The modern trend appears to be towards broader sectoral training, which includes a set of generic business and life skills rather than preparing an individual for a specific job such as being an accountant, welder, carpenter or chef. This allows the individual to move from an entry-level job to a longer-term career more readily. A report from the Global Commission on the Future of Work confirms this analysis and refers to ‘a universal entitlement to lifelong learning that enables people to acquire skills and to reskill and upskill.’  As the world of work ‘begins at home’, the authors also emphasise the importance of strengthening women’s voices and leadership in addressing gender equality and the rural economy, which is regarded as ‘where the future of many of the world’s workers lies.’
African educators should also balance the need for academic education with vocational training. In addition to advocating for technical and vocational training as a parallel education stream from secondary school onwards, the World Bank advocates for workplace training and short-term job training programmes.  It finds that informal apprenticeships are most common in sub-Saharan Africa, supported by examples from Benin, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal where these programmes account for almost 90% of the training that prepares workers for crafts jobs and employment in some trades. [ ]
Valuable examples of technical teaching innovation come from modern Germany. One of the most widely acclaimed German practices is its vocational training system at secondary-level schooling and the partnership that has been established, in law, between publicly funded vocational schools and small- and medium-sized companies. The system culminates in providing a student with a certificate issued by a competent body (e.g. a chamber of industry and commerce or a chamber of crafts and trades) in around 330 occupations requiring formal training in Germany. 
However, what works in a highly formalised and developed economy such as Germany will not work in most of Africa. In addition to many other challenges, the low quality of education in most sub-Saharan countries means that students may not have fully mastered the foundational skills of reading, writing, numeracy, critical thinking and problem-solving that are required for entering the vocational training stream. The World Bank refers to this as ‘not just a lack of trained workers; it is a lack of readily trainable workers.’  Regardless of the continent’s preparedness, digitisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a large cadre of technical skills, and the poor quality of general schooling in Africa implies that great care must be taken to ensure that students who do choose this vocational line of education have sufficient grounding.
This section sets out the interventions in the IFs modelling platform that represent ambitious but reasonable improvements in the quantity, quality and nature of education in Africa. We then compare the impact of the scenario with education outcomes on the Current Path, including on growth rates, size of economies, average incomes and inequality.
Our approach is systematic and comprehensive. The interventions target every level of the formal education flow, from primary education enrolment to tertiary graduation. Some omissions, such as with regard to ECD, adult education and informal education, should be noted as the IFs system does not yet include modules on these aspects. Informal education in particular remains hard to measure and compare across African countries. Although these elements deserve further investigation, our interventions and simulated investments into primary schooling partially represent parallel improvements in ECD. Similarly, we argue that improved adult education will be a small component of improvements to education along the complete educational pipeline.
Chart 9 indicates the logic of the interventions across 10 sets of variables, which target intake, survival and graduation rates, as well as quality from primary to tertiary level. We also target gender parity, particularly at the primary and secondary level, and the proportion of students enrolled in key-skill programmes, including vocational studies and courses focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at higher levels.
The first set of interventions improves throughput along the entire education funnel. It increases intake (or enrolment), survival and graduation rates at primary, lower secondary, upper secondary and tertiary levels, as well as the transition rates between these levels of schooling. The impact is such that rates for primary school completion in Africa improve from 76% at primary level in 2019 for of-age children to 100% by 2036, instead of only steadily increasing to 92% by 2043 on the Current Path. This is an aggressive intervention but without a huge effort to improve this foundational aspect of Africa’s development, subsequent progress on most other dimensions is virtually impossible. In the process, Africa overtakes South Asia in primary school completion rates by 2031 and catches up to South America’s rate by 2036.
The interventions on lower secondary education (Chart 10) are less aggressive but still ambitious. Africa saw a 50% completion rate in 2019 and can expect an improvement to just over 60% by 2043 on the Current Path. Our interventions instead contemplate an improvement to 71% by 2043. Although Africa will not quite catch up to other comparable regions, the continent will nevertheless exceed the 2019 South Asia figure of 67% by 2039. Africa will continue to lag behind South Asia’s and South America’s rates of over 80% completion in 2043, demonstrating the size of the gap and the long time frames required to improve the education system.
Completion in the upper secondary phase increases from about 46% in 2043 on the Current Path to 55% in the Education scenario, a significant improvement from the 33% completion rate of of-age children in 2019. Africa will continue to lag behind South Asia, which will nearly catch up with South America’s 75% completion rate by 2043. This is despite Africa and South Asia having had similar completion rates in upper secondary schooling in 2015. Although the contexts are different, the difference demonstrates the plausibility of aggressive and sustained systemic improvements to education with the right policies.
Primary completion rates improve by 11 percentage points over those forecast in the Current Path by 2037 and then moderate to an improvement of 7.8 percentage points in 2043, while the improvement for lower secondary is 10 percentage points by 2043 and 9.1 percentage points for upper secondary education.
With respect to tertiary education, our interventions are less aggressive, as improvements in tertiary education output will rely decisively on gains at lower levels first. Nevertheless, the Education scenario contemplates an improvement of two percentage points to graduation rates by 2043 (from 14% of of-age individuals to 16%). This represents a considerable improvement from the low base rate of 8% in 2019.
These interventions would also be good news for Africa’s SDG ambitions. In the Education scenario, Africa will get significantly closer to attaining its SDG goals, raising primary net enrolment from 85% of-age children to 89% by 2030, and primary gross completion from 86% to 91%. Similar improvements can be seen across the other indicators, although, like on the Current Path, Africa will only meet its enrolment and completion goals with respect to primary gross enrolment by 2030 if this aggressive scenario were to be fully realised.
The Education scenario creates a more aggressive gradient and pushes gender parity rates closer to the 1:1 female-to-male goal on almost every indicator, although only on net enrolment rates at primary level by 2030. The Education scenario would also see 98 girls complete each level of education for every 100 boys, at both primary and secondary level, although it still falls short of the rates achieved in comparable regions by 2030. Gender parity at tertiary level is likely to follow the general global trend of reaching a 1:1 ratio and then surpassing it (as female students often tend to be higher achievers at tertiary education levels) both on the Current Path and in the Education scenario.
This set of interventions improves the quality of education at primary and secondary levels. At primary level, Africa does not currently lag far behind South Asia, although composite test scores (including for maths, reading and science) are lower. However, while South Asia’s education scores are likely to rise by more than six percentage points (a 19% improvement), Africa is set to stagnate on the Current Path, seeing an improvement of only two percentage points (or 6%) by 2043 compared with scores in 2019.
In the Education scenario, our interventions instead point to Africa achieving similar levels of quality as South Asia by 2043 (about a 20% improvement), although both regions will still fall behind South America’s scores but by less than two percentage points.
The trend is similar at secondary level, with the interventions boosting quality across maths, reading and science to keep up with progress in South Asia by 2043. However, this is a more aggressive push, as the gap between Africa and South Asia was more significant in 2019. This jump would also require Africa to catch up to quality levels in South America (as South Asia will do on the Current Path by about 2030), marginally surpassing it — an ambitious but reasonable target given South Asia’s own improvements.
To improve the supply of relevant skills for future demand, the percentage of upper secondary school students pursuing vocational studies is boosted from 20% to 22% by 2043, as well as the share of science and engineering graduates at tertiary level from 19% to 21% by 2043.
The impact of the Education scenario can be measured in different ways.
Charts 12A–D present the completion rates at primary, lower secondary, upper secondary and tertiary levels in 2019 and include both the Current Path and the Education scenario forecast for 2043. Data is shown for each African region. Progress generally slows beyond the primary level (Chart 12A), although North Africa consistently performs better than other regions.
Chart 13 compares the mean years of education for adults aged 20–29 years with the 2043 forecast for South America and South Asia. By using a youthful age cohort (20–29 years), the findings reflect the improvements modelled in the Education scenario.
In the Education scenario and when using this age cohort as a lens to measure progress, all five regions start closing the gap relative to the rest of the world, yet only North Africa surpasses the 2019 mean for the world except Africa by 2043. East Africa performs best with regard to increasing mean years of education, seeing an improvement of 51% between 2019 and 2043 (from 6.4 years to 9.7 years). Central Africa, which generally lags in improvements, also sees an aggressive 50% increase. However, coming from a much lower base, it remains the worst-performing region.
The Education scenario increases expenditure on education in Africa by 0.113% of GDP by 2043, equivalent to US$30.6 billion of additional funds in that year, i.e. on top of the US$436.8 billion that Africa is forecast to spend on education on the Current Path in 2043. Although this is a substantial amount, these additional costs produce a much larger economy. By 2043, the difference in the GDP growth rate between the Education scenario and the Current Path forecast is 0.6 percentage points and, as a result, the African economy will be US$405.4 billion larger in 2043 than forecast on the Current Path.
As the level of skills improve, Africa’s economies start to grow, slowly at first and then accelerating over time, and improvements to GDP snowball beyond the 2043 time horizon. It is this return on investment that results in the mantra about better education lifting all boats, for improved education reduces fertility, improves productivity and raises the quality of democracy and governance to make countries more stable.
Education is essentially a multiplier on human output. The benefits inevitably accrue disproportionately to more developed countries, which already have higher levels of productivity and thus benefit most from this multiplicative effect. By 2040, average levels of GDP per capita (in PPP) will increase by:
- US$132 per person in low-income Africa
- US$310 per person for lower middle-income Africa
- US$414 per person in upper middle-income countries
- US$747 per person in the Seychelles, Africa’s only high-income country.
If Africa could simultaneously reduce the size of the annual influx of primary school children by appropriate family planning interventions as set out in the theme on demographics, the effect of improved education could be even greater. The effect of having fewer children to enter primary school will soon cascade through the entire education system (on top of the decline in fertility associated with better education), meaning more funds could be spent on the smaller cohort of children as they progress from primary to secondary and eventually tertiary levels. In this manner, the Demographic and the Education scenarios reinforce each other in a powerful way.
Improved levels and quality of education also have a small positive effect in reducing inequality and would reduce extreme poverty by more than one percentage point across the continent, or about 39 million people, in 2043,  with low and lower middle-income Africa benefiting most in this respect.
Chart 14 presents the impact of the Education scenario on the GDP per capita by 2043, i.e. above the Current Path forecast for that year. Burundi, Somalia and the Central African Republic gain the least (US$37 to US$52), and Seychelles and Equatorial Guinea gain the most (US$747 and US$763, respectively).
Better education reduces infant mortality (by an average of 1.2 fewer deaths per 1 000 live births in 2043 for Africa), reduces total fertility (by 0.08 births per woman in 2043) and increases life expectancy by more than 3 months by 2043. The result is an African population that is 7.2 million people smaller by 2043 than it would have been on the Current Path forecast.
The power of education is such that some commentators argue that education and health, rather than age structure, bring about the demographic dividend. It is investments in these aspects of human capital, they argue, that serve as the trigger of both demographic transition and economic growth and that declining youth dependency ratios even show negative impacts on income growth when combined with low education. Thus ‘the true demographic dividend is a human capital dividend’ and policymakers are urged to focus on strengthening the human resource base for sustainable development. [ ]
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated changes in education, it also caused many students to lose a considerable amount of education in 2020 and 2021. In its wake, teachers and policy makers will need to reassess education, particularly the current limits with distance learning in a situation where broadband Internet access in much of Africa is still limited. After the pandemic, a new model could catalyse systemic positive improvements to education, particularly for children in distant and under-resourced districts but only provided the necessary infrastructure is available.
Augmented reality (AR) may soon become accessible as a practical teaching mode, with billions of dollars already being spent on research and development. [leapfrogging come to Africa, students will be able to consume lectures at their own pace, with time in class used for discussing problems or collaborative work.] The application of new technologies could replace a teacher in front of a whiteboard (or chalkboard) with apps, gameplay and entirely new ways of teaching. If the promise of 5G speeds and connectivity examined in the theme on
Instead of students huddling around a teacher in front of an oven to learn how to bake or around an engine to assemble, disassemble and repair it, students will all have their own virtual ovens or engines. Using an AR headset, they will be able to experiment with different ingredients or take the engine apart, study each part and put it back together. Students studying biology will be able to dissect virtual animals and view their organs. Medical students will be able to do the same with the human body and trainee nurses will be able to track blood flow, explore the digestive system and see how muscles work.
AR will make learning more immersive, exciting and effective. It could enable students in the most isolated and disadvantaged rural areas to see and do things they would otherwise never have the opportunity to. It is a powerful way of providing individual and flexible learning, connecting theory with the real world. Want to get a child to learn a foreign language or to understand computer coding? Get them to play a game in that language or to experiment with coding. In tomorrow’s world, understanding technology and coding will be crucial, and AR and artificial intelligence can help students get to grips with computation, sensors, networks, digital printing, genetic engineering and robotics, to name a few. New technology will also help with basic literacy. 
Education systems are notoriously slow moving and in most African countries particularly so. New teaching technologies and methods must be exploited to help meet the challenges of the future. African countries will not close the gap in average levels of education compared with the rest of the world by using current systems and practices. Technology can fundamentally change the nature of education and enable the move away from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual campuses that will facilitate much broader access for both students and teachers. Much of that is already possible in so-called point learning, where the curious African can use the Internet to make, disassemble, repair, cook or understand almost anything by watching videos. You do not need to be an accredited technician with years of formal training to understand how to replace and repair a smartphone; you just need the Internet and a set of very small screwdrivers.
But none of this is possible without electricity and broadband access, and getting these basics in place will therefore largely determine the extent to which Africa can leapfrog in education.
Education can provide improved opportunities to poor people and the relationship between better education and improved levels of income is strong. The Education scenario could have a transformative impact on African economies and societies, but the results will not be achieved without great effort and new ways of thinking. Africa not only needs to get the basics right but should also ensure a very rapid uptake of modern technology to help compensate for deficits in teaching capacity and for governments to invest appropriately.
A rapidly growing low-income country such as Ethiopia cannot progress into low-end manufacturing (its stated goal) — despite spending large amounts of money on the sector — if its intent is to use English as a medium of instruction that is currently taught only from the secondary phase and by teachers who are barely able to speak it themselves.  Tunisia and Algeria face similar challenges in trying to undo the damages that colonialism wreaked on their Arabic educational systems.
Beyond basic levels of (primary) education and literacy, an education system must evolve to respond to many requirements, including changing education demands to help prepare students for the job requirements of the future. The world of work requires more skilled and fewer semi- and unskilled workers.
There is clearly a powerful relationship between citizens’ level of education and the prosperity of nations, but it is also quite complicated, as the example by Ricardo Hausmann shows: 
In 1998, Ghana’s workforce had an average of about seven years of education and its per capita income was about $1 000. When Mexico’s workforce first achieved an average of seven years of education — in 1993 — its income was over $10 000, while France’s per capita income when its workforce first got to an average of seven years of education (in 1985), was over $20 000. These figures tell us that rich countries are rich not just because of education, and, conversely, that investing in education alone won’t make you rich.
Hausmann attributes the ability to translate education and technology into growth to the ability to apply knowledge. That, he argues, comes through imitation and repetition of tasks — learning by doing. For a country to develop and grow, it needs to provide the opportunity for learning while doing. What he does not examine, however, is the matter of the quality of the education provided in Ghana, Mexico and France, pointing to the need to dig deep when considering key relationships.
Governments need to fix education across the system, working their way through the education funnel from the starting point, by investing in ECD, ensuring primary school enrolment and completion, developing literacy and using modern technology in the process. Once progress is achieved in primary education, the priority should shift to improving enrolment and completion in lower-secondary schools, then on to fixing upper secondary and, eventually, tertiary education. Not all countries do this and some, such as Malawi and South Africa, spend inordinate portions of their budget on tertiary education while neglecting primary and secondary education.
The quality of education is important, together with offering vocational and technical training as opposed to the singular focus on academic teaching so evident across many African countries. Simply pushing children through school is not a solution if their education does not comprehensively and fundamentally address the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and then allow them to build the skills required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Models of education do not change rapidly. Because of colonialism, most African countries still adhere to the outdated Prussian model of rote education. It has often, and rightly so, been criticised for being overly rigid and inflexible. But at its core we find the commitment to first teach students how to learn.
In Africa, overcrowded classrooms, poorly educated teachers and limited educational facilities are the norm. Many children are poor, undernourished and have to walk far to attend school every day. Looking at the rather dismal state of education in Africa, the continent could clearly do with much greater order and a sense of educational purpose, particularly when it comes to improving children’s reading, writing and arithmetic skills, ensuring teachers’ attendance, and in finding ways to manage the large classes that are typical in so many schools. We desperately need to find a way to raise the bar, particularly in poorer schools.
Each African country faces different challenges, but more parent involvement, upskilling teachers and designing teaching and learning methods that are sensitive to local conditions are central to creating functioning education systems in Africa. Not all of this requires sophisticated technology,  but once the basics are in place, technology in the form of 5G and augmented reality could be a key facilitator to drive the progress modelled in the Education scenario.
Effective education requires students who are sufficiently nourished, stimulated and cared for, capable teaching, skilled management and a government and education system that pulls all of this together. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have these four key components in place and face a crisis in education that the World Bank describes as a low-learning trap. 
It is possible to escape this trap, as is demonstrated by the advances made in South Korea, China and Vietnam, but it will require a tremendous effort, political leadership, societal engagement and the use of modern technology.  It is imperative to find ways to channel many more students towards vocational training programmes that benefit from broader integration into the educational system and to enable informal, virtual self-empowerment.
A review of the widening gap in Africa’s education levels and quality compared with the rest of the world makes it clear that strategic planning, innovation, investment and, most of all, leadership are required to address the continent’s education backlog. Africa’s likely prospects along the Current Path forecast are depressing. If the continent fails in this dimension it will fail in all others.
EA Hanushek and L Wößmann, Education and economic growth, in P Peterson, E Baker and B McGaw (eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 2, Oxford: Elsevier, 2010, 245–52.
Many studies have linked the economic boom in the UK and the US after the Second World War to the advent of mass public education before the First World War. Also see: P Morris, Asia's Four Little Tigers: A Comparison of the Role of Education in Their Development, Comparative Education, 32:1, 1996, 95–109.
See, for example, M Roser and E Ortiz-Ospina, Literacy, 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.
When coming off a higher base, it is not as easy to maintain the previous momentum of improved education as levels approach saturation.
M Roser and E Ortiz-Ospina, Literacy, 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.
JA-N Sanny, C Logan and E Gyimah-Boadi, In Search of Opportunity: Young and Educated Africans Most Likely to Consider Moving Abroad, 2019, Accra: AfroBarometer.
This is the view advanced by Swedish economist and Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal. His work preempted that of John Maynard Keynes.
A Wils, B Carrol and K Barrow, Educating the World's Children: Patterns of Growth and Inequality, Washington: Education Policy and Data Center, 2005
UNESCO, Institute for Statistics
UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Gross enrolment ratio; UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Completion rate (primary education, lower secondary education, upper secondary education).
M Roser and E Ortiz-Ospina, Literacy, 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.
A prime example is the event known as the Arab Spring in North Africa in 2010/11, where the protests were generally led by younger, well-educated groupings, many of whom were unable to find formal-sector jobs in economies stifled by state bureaucracy and corruption. At the time, the 15–24-year cohort had been educated for two years more than those aged 25 and older.
Contributing factors include dismantling the country’s separate teacher colleges in favour of standard university teaching, extensive unionisation of the teaching profession, independent inspections being replaced by self-regulated (i.e. union-controlled) systems, and curriculum experiments such as so-called outcomes-based education.
D Evans, How well does regulation of private schools work in Sub-Saharan Africa?, 20 November 2017.
L Vives, Private schools gain a foothold in Africa, Africa Renewal, 2017, https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/august-november-2017/private-schools-gain-foothold-africa.
UNESCO, The pros and cons of private and public education in Africa, 2018.
UNESCO, The pros and cons of private and public education in Africa, 2018; L Vives, Private schools gain a foothold in Africa, Africa Renewal, 2017; K Malouf Bous, False Promises: How Delivering Education through Public-Private Partnerships Risks Fuelling Inequality Instead of Achieving Quality Education for All, Oxford: Oxfam, 2019.
K Malouf Bous, False Promises: How Delivering Education through Public-Private Partnerships Risks Fuelling Inequality Instead of Achieving Quality Education for All, Oxford: Oxfam, 2019; UNESCO, The pros and cons of private and public education in Africa, 2018.
EA Hanushek and L Wößmann, Education and economic growth, in P Peterson, E Baker and B McGaw (eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 2, Oxford: Elsevier, 2010, 245–52.
EA Hanushek and L Wößmann, Education Quality and Economic Growth, Washington DC: World Bank, 2007.
A recent dataset has created a common measurement system for 163 countries, including 30 in sub-Saharan Africa. See: N Altinok, N Angrist and H Patrinos, Global Data Set on Education Quality (1965–2015), World Bank Group Policy Research Working Paper 8314, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018.
N Altinok, N Angrist and H Patrinos, Global Data Set on Education Quality (1965–2015), World Bank Group Policy Research Working Paper 8314, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 5. The findings from Altinok and colleagues are that ‘learning outcomes in developing countries are generally clustered at the bottom of the global scale and even the top developing country performers still often perform worse than the bottom performers in developed countries.’
N Altinok, N Angrist and H Patrinos, Global Data Set on Education Quality (1965–2015), World Bank Group Policy Research Working Paper 8314, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 23.
E Ortiz-Ospina, Global education quality in 4 charts, 2018.
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018.
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 9–11.
United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 4, 2018.
UNICEF, Education and COVID-19.
Human Rights Watch, Impact of COVID-19 on children’s education in Africa, 2021.
P Koninckx, C Fatondji and J Burgos, COVID-19 impact on higher education in Africa, 2021.
Gender parity refers to the number of female students participating in a given level of education relative to the number of male students at the same level.
African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Development Bank for Reconstruction and Inter-American Development Bank, The future of work: Regional perspectives, 2018.
African Center for Economic Transformation, The future of work in Africa — The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on job creation and skill development in Africa, Accra: African Center for Economic Transformation, 2018, 2.
Global Commission on the Future of Work, Work for a brighter future, Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2019, 13
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 154.
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 155.
Federal Ministry of Education and Research, The German Vocational Training System
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 9, 157.
Using US$1.90 per person per day as the threshold of extreme poverty.
W Lutz, JC Cuaresma, E Kebede, A Prskawetz, WC Sanderson and E Striessnig, Education rather than age-structure brings demographic dividend, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116:26, 12798–803, 2019.
In 2017, spending on education technology investments surpassed US$9.5 billion, up 30% from the year before. Also see: PH Diamandis, A model for the future of education, 2018.
For example: Winners of the 2019 XPRIZE (aimed at eliminating adult illiteracy in the US, retooling tomorrow’s workforce and encouraging lifelong learning) included Learning Upgrade, which has developed an app that helps students learn English and mathematics through videos, songs and gamification from pre-school to adult education, and PeopleForWords, which offers an immersive virtual environment and gamification to improve vocabulary and comprehension.
Ethiopian children are currently taught in their mother tongue in grades 1–4, then in Amharic until, in Grade 8, education switches to English. See: Z Donnenfeld, J Cilliers, S Kwasi and L Welborn, Emerging giant potential pathways for Ethiopia to 2040, Institute for Security Studies, 2019.
R Hausmann, Centre for Development and Enterprise, 2017
Already a number of schooling projects require teachers to post a selfie by 8 a.m. every day to prove they are in class and teaching.
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018.
World Bank, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise, Washington DC: World Bank, 2018, 16.
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Cite this research
Jakkie Cilliers (2023) Education. Published online at futures.issafrica.org. Retrieved from https://futures.issafrica.org/thematic/06-education/ [Online Resource] Updated 17 October 2022.