Is Africa the new frontier for international higher education?

Posted on 13/11/2013


In the past 6 months, several important news came up about higher education in Africa:

. In January, IFC, a member of the World Bank, invested 150 million USD into the private for-profit Laureate Group to develop activities in Latin America and MENA. The first publicized use of this cash was to take a significant stake (ultimately up to 50%) in a joint venture with Monash on their successful campus in South Africa.

. The World Bank (again), will soon select around 8 Centres of excellence among African universities, each receiving 8 million USD to strengthen their research and develop new programs.

. Lancaster University has announced the opening of a campus in Accra (Ghana), with currently 58 students.

. CEIBIS, one of the best business schools in the world, jointly created by the EU and China and based in Shanghai, has been offering an Executive MBA in Accra also for the past few years.

. Webster University announced also the opening of its first campus in Africa, in Ghana again.

. Limkokwing University, a prominent private Malaysian university, has now campuses in Bostwana, Swaziland and Lesotho.

. India has invested in the Pan-African e-Network Project, to develop higher education links with several African countries.

. Mauritius is working with other African countries in trying to position itself as a hub in the region (at least for East Africa).


While some of these initiatives may be related to soft power policy from governments to have a footprint on Africa’s resources, what is more striking is that many initiatives are from institutions which would not invest if there was not a rather clear prospect of a return on their investments. Laureate or Limkokwing are private companies which need to make a profit to survive and grow. In the same vein, I have never seen a UK university opening offshore operations if there is no return, often immediate. Of course, we have all witnessed failures in the past 10 years, but certainly not more than in any other industries.

Is it the signal that other universities will or should open operations in Africa?

Africa will enjoy a growing 18-22 population for the next 10 years, with Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Angola among the top 10 in the world in absolute numbers. Several countries have also a projected growth of the GDP above 5%/year for the next 10 years: Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya.

This will lead to an increase in the number of students pursuing higher education and also in the number of students sent abroad to study. Furthermore, based on past trends, countries which are net exporters of students for higher education are good candidates for the opening of a branch campus. This was/is the case for Singapore, Malaysia, China and would be for India and Indonesia if the legislations were more welcoming to transnational education. So, it could be the case in Africa for Nigeria, Kenya, Angola and Ethiopia. Of course, several of these countries are considered as being difficult for business, including for basic security issues and general political instabilities. Historically, we have seen countries considered as “easier” or “friendlier” becoming hubs to cover for the other “less friendly” countries (this can be very subjective of course). That’s why, viewed from far away (Europe for example), Singapore looked like the best place to open a program, and should be able to attract students from neighboring countries. Same is applied for Dubai. And gradually, foreign universities ventured into neighbouring countries. In most cases, it started with pathway or twinning programs, before moving to the opening of full branch campuses.

That’s why Ghana, despite its relative “small size”, sees now several interesting initiatives, hoping to attract students from Nigeria. In the same vein, Mauritius, would be a very good candidate to become a hub for East Africa and as it is one of the few bilingual countries in the region, could also cater for countries in West Africa where French is more dominant than English (21 African countries, representing 360 million people, have French as one of their official languages). In Africa, French Business and Engineering schools, would thus be in a better “historical” position to attract students than they are in South East Asia, India or in the Middle East, regions where studying in UK still has its luster, explaining why there are so many UK universities entering Malaysia for example.

It will be interesting to survey the development of new initiatives in the next 12 months, to see if the current ones are forerunners of a larger trend for the next 10 to 15 years. Will the development follow the traditional path from twinning programs to programs hosted by local partners and then to full branch campuses? Will initiatives be mainly “North-South” as it was the case in Asia or also “South-South” as exemplified by the initiatives from China, India and Malaysia? Will French institutions use their relative advantage (while it lasts?) Or will African higher education grow by itself? Africa is definitely becoming an exciting place for higher education and the prospect that it will benefit local populations and local institutions is even more exciting.