Is Africa the future for recruiting international students?

In June Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, delivered a statement at a meeting in Equatorial Guinea. He said: “Together and united, Africa will be unstoppable.”

New African’s editor Baffour Ankomah recently wrote: “Africa’s vast oil and mineral reserves will prove to be a conduit for investments in infrastructure, improved healthcare and educational opportunities.”

The statistics seem to back such statements up.

In 2018, six of the 10 fastest growing economies worldwide were in Africa.

Africa has the fastest-growing middle class in the world. Despite recent revised forecasts, the African economy is predicted to grow at a faster rate than many other regions.

More than 1.2 billion people currently live in Africa. By 2030, the continent’s population is estimated to be 1.7 billion and 2.2 billion in 2050. Sixty per cent of the African population (250 million people) are under the age of 25.

Despite these statistics, less than 10% of Sub-Saharan African youth are enrolled in post-secondary education.

Higher education recruitment in Africa

Twenty years ago I was enjoying breakfast at the Le Meridien hotel in Dakar and realised that I was the only non-Chinese person in the room.

China has invested heavily in Africa for decades and has continued investing through its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s African infrastructure projects include building educational infrastructure. For example, in July 2019 nine African universities signed agreements with several Chinese universities and think-tanks to conduct joint research projects and increase academic and student exchange programmes.

China has overtaken the United States and the United Kingdom for the number of anglophone African students studying there.

China is not the only country investing time, talent and resources in Africa. There are approximately 25,000 African studentscurrently studying in 500 universities in India.

However, according to a recent UNESCO report, an increasing number of African students are choosing to remain in Africa for post-secondary education. South Africa is the preferred destination. Living conditions in South Africa, along with favourable living costs and simplified visa regulations, are among the reasons for increased African enrolment in South African universities.

Online learning

In the report, Educating the Masses: The rise of online education in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the author Stefan Trines, research editor for World Education News and Reviews, writes that Africa is “the most dynamic e-learning market on the planet”.

In Nigeria, for example, fewer than 40% of university applicantsare regularly admitted to a Nigerian university, leaving an estimated one million students without any university placement.

The National Open University of Nigeria, the country’s largest university with 254,000 students, established a digital online open educational resources centre in 2016 and began offering MOOCs – massive open online courses – to students unable to enrol in Nigerian universities.

The African Virtual University, founded in 1997, is a pan-African intergovernmental organisation that includes 19 African countries, with a goal of increasing access to higher education. To date the university has trained more than 74,000 students, and partners with 53 colleges and universities in 27 countries.

Unicaf University, founded in 2012, has more than 18,000 students and offers online degrees in partnership with the University of South Wales, Marymount California University and the University of Nicosia.

eLearnAfrica is a MOOC provider offering more than 1,000 courses from edX, FutureLearn and other online providers and institutions. In 2017 eLearnAfrica and the Association of African Universities announced a partnership that would expand online learning opportunities for students enrolled in 380 member institutions, potentially making educational opportunities available to 10 million African students.

Several African cash-strapped governments are investing in online educational opportunities as a way to bridge the education capacity gap.

Online education cannot solve all of Africa’s higher education problems. Only 39.8% of Africans have internet connection. But in future years, as connectivity improves, more African students will have access to university-level courses through courses offered online.

Former deputy minister of education in Ghana, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, in a recent address to the graduating class of Laweh Open University, told the students: “Distance education is the solution to addressing the educational needs of students who could not be admitted to public tertiary institutions. African universities need to adopt new ways of teaching through technology. Otherwise they may be rendered irrelevant and unable to compete on a global scale.”

Eleven African recruitment recommendations

For 10 years I managed the recruitment and admission functions of Suffolk University’s satellite campus in Dakar, Senegal. We recruited students from all over Africa, enrolled students from more than 40 African countries and after two years the majority of students transferred to complete four-year undergraduate degrees either at Suffolk University in Boston or at other colleges and universities in the United States and Europe.

The students on the Dakar campus were among the best students we enrolled. My administrative experience in Dakar, while the most challenging in my career, was also the most rewarding.

However, I was often frustrated because the strategies used to implement successful international recruitment programmes in other countries simply did not apply in Senegal. My African colleagues would caution: “It’s Africa.” I gradually began to realise that another set of recruitment and enrolment strategies, specific to Africa, had to be developed.

Before investing in an African strategic international recruitment plan I suggest the following:

  • • Be certain you know why your college or university is recruiting in Africa. Why should African students enrol in your school? Trying to communicate your differentiating value proposition is difficult. Think from the end before investing staff and financial resources.
  • • Select one, maybe two, countries for recruitment. Do your homework. Research the selected countries. There are education indices for every African country that can provide a useful framework to begin your research on the issues and challenges for higher education enrolment in each country. Be certain your information highlights the African country best suited for the courses or degree programmes offered by your school. African graduates, like all graduates, want to leave university with a degree that can translate into employment after graduation.
  • • Seek the advice of your African faculty, enrolled students, parents and alumni. Why did they enrol in your school? Why do they teach at your school?
  • • Be certain that there is one person on your administrative team that will ‘own’ your African international strategic plan; a person who is capable and willing to travel to Africa several times a year to supervise staff, monitor progress and adjust recruitment strategies when necessary.
  • • Be certain you have considered the competition from all other international colleges and universities already recruiting in Africa. What can you offer African students that your competitors cannot?
  • • Be certain that your institution is prepared to realise no immediate financial return and be prepared to offer scholarships as part of your recruitment plan.
  • • Be certain that you have accurately and adequately articulated to the president, trustees, treasurer, academic deans, faculty and staff why a decision was made to recruit in Africa and what can reasonably be expected from the initiative.
  • • Be certain that you have developed a relationship with staff in the ministry of education who can assist you with navigating local education laws and degree regulations.
  • • Be certain to collaborate with a local college or university and consider two-plus-two or three-plus-one agreements as part of your recruitment strategy.
  • • Be certain that there is an online or MOOC component in your international strategic recruitment plan for Africa.
  • • Be certain to develop strategic partnerships with some multinational organisations to create a robust internship programme.

A cautionary tale

Although there is a great deal of ‘hype’ and many articles written about Africa replacing China for future international student enrolment, it will be several years before that becomes a reality.

After 10 years in Dakar, Suffolk University – for several reasons – decided to close the campus. I wish I had followed the recommendations listed in this article because I believe that campus would still be open today if I had.

Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.


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