The ESSA story begins in 2011 with our Founder and Chair, Patrick Dunne, who had been already working in African educational contexts for many years. In working on the ground, Patrick saw the consequences of the huge systemic educational challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of high quality data about education in the sub-Saharan Africa region as well as the absence of one place online to find out all the things needed to know about education in the region. For example, who else is doing what we want to do, what is the best available research on the things you need to know, who are the top researchers, who might make a good partner, what are the highest impact models, who is funding what and what are the key statistics and needs for a region or a topic and more.

The more Patrick was describing the “un-joined-up space” he was discovering to others, the more support he received from institutions and individuals stating what was truly missing in the space was a “convener”, a platform which would contribute to more systematic and long-term cooperation, based on evidence, and attracting investment into what has realistic chances to succeed.

In 2016, the Robert Bosch Foundation, keen to become a supporter of systemic change in Tertiary Education, were very interested in the ESSA concept, and provided initial seed-funding. Also, they asked one of their senior team members, Olaf Hahn, to become the Founding Director. 

Since its creation in 2016 ESSA has essentially developed a model to breath life into its concept and to start positioning itself for a convening role in Tertiary Education. In 2017, we co-created, together with the REAL Centre at University of Cambridge, the first online database for African research on education. Ever since its launch in June 2018, the African Education Research Database has been extensively used. The partnership and support of the Swiss Jacobs Foundation was transformative for this work.

In 2017 the Association of African Universities (AAU), a pan-African membership organisation of more than 400 universities, ESSA and the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) have formed a partnership on the recruitment, development and retention of faculty. As enrolment rates increase, the already high need for sufficient and sufficiently qualified faculty is likely to exponentially grow in the years to come. The objective of the AAU-ESSA cooperation is to identify pipelines for sustainable supply. As a starting point, both institutions have cooperated with the National Council of Tertiary Education (NCTE) in Ghana to build an understanding of the current state and future needs of faculty in the country. Robust data and trustful forecasting being prerequisites for adequate policy and financial planning. This pilot funded and in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation.


In 2018, ESSA started its work on another systemic topic in Tertiary Education: The impact of scholarships for socio-economic change. Supported by an individual donor and the Schaufler Foundation, we have started work on a pilot “Scholarship Impact Hub” project which is doing four things:

  • mapping the space and understanding best practice, creating working relations with providers, donors and universities

  • developing, through the identification of key-performance indicators for successful programmes, a quality framework designed to support the creation of new programmes and to make future investments more impactful

  • creating fora to join up the space for exchange and learning

  • developing advice-services to offer support, especially for businesses interested in investing in scholarship provision

The Scholarship Impact Hub also aims to contribute to the global discussion on scholarships, e.g. through scientific and other publications and communication.

With the recent commitment of a new partner and funder, we are ready to enter into the next phase of our development, focussing on one of the most urgent needs in Africa with a perspective of a massive population growth in the next decades: the creation of jobs and how Tertiary Education must evolve in order to best educate young people for work.

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Our strategy for the next growth phase

Our long-term mission is to collate and bring together the best of what governments, the education communities, research, donors, the private sector and civil society have to offer to improve Tertiary Education in sub-Saharan Africa in order to better fit the needs of the labour markets. It is to contribute bringing this practical knowledge to action and to capitalize on it, leveraging resources and expertise and to support the capacity and capability building which is needed to make this a reality.


In the next three years we will lay the ground for the accomplishment of this mission. There are four strategic goals which guide us in this process:

1. Deliver measurable outcome in six central work-strands, in three partner-countries, in order to showcase areas of high need and what can be done:

  • Deepen and extend our work on the capacity and capability of African faculty in order to produce robust data for policy and practice, and to co-design solutions for the supply with academic teachers in the years to come

  • Support academic mobility on and towards the African continent through the creation of an academic jobs board, in partnership with AAU and www.jobs.ac.uk.

  • Create skills training in leadership and management especially for educational leaders, with a particular emphasis on female leaders

  • Create a strong cooperative network with business to develop impactful internship models and business-oriented study and career-advice

  • Bring our Scholarship Impact Hub to deliver

  • Develop, manage and communicate digital and non-digital knowledge and network resources on tertiary education for practical input and learning 

2. Create and develop the partnerships we need to deliver     

3. Grow our resources and develop own income strands to sustain ESSA   

4. Develop a collaborative model to inspire a “global compact on Tertiary Education in Africa”