African students turning their backs on cold North,streaming to warm South…to African universities

Between 1999 and 2012, the number of African students choosing to study outside their home countries but within Africa rose sharply from 18% to 28%

Igba Samuel is a 23-year-old Nigerian student studying Peace and Conflict Transformation at Nairobi’s Daystar University. While several of his peers who wanted to further their studies abroad chose universities in Europe and the US, he picked Kenya as the destination for his undergraduate studies.

“I was visiting Kenya and liked Nairobi. It’s better here than in Abuja because there’s more focus on the student than in our public universities,” Samuel says of his decision. He is one of many students from around Africa and other parts of the world who are choosing to pursue higher education in African universities rather than traditional destinations like Britain, the United States and Canada. 

Education analysts are only beginning to come to grips with the meaning of this interesting shift from the decades-long South-North movement, to a South-South one. 

Cost and familiarity
For instance, the number of African students studying in the United States has been decreasing steadily since 2009. In 2009, there were 31,840 students from the continent studying in the US. The number fell to 28,862 in 2012. A recent report  by the Higher Education Funding Council for England pointed to a general decline in the number of students studying in the country’s universities, indicating that the number of international students enrolling in full-time taught master’s and doctorate programmes declined by 1% between the 2010-11 and 2012-13 academic years. 

In previous years, international entry to postgraduate taught programmes enjoyed double digit growth. Some analysts have blamed this decline on the UK’s increasingly stringent immigration policies, which have negatively impacted graduate enrollment rates. 

Beyond that, however, data from Unesco’s Institute of Statistics suggests that more and more students from sub-Saharan Africa are choosing to study closer home due to lower travel and living costs. Cultural familiarity is also thought to play a role in the trend. Between 1999 and 2012, the number of African students choosing to study outside their home countries but within Africa rose sharply from 18% to 28%.

The lion’s share 
South African universities are getting the lion’s share of international (and African) students choosing to study on the continent. African students in South African universities shot up from 43,587 in 2009 to 61,396 in 2011. South Africa’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) says non-South African Masters enrollments increased from 9% to 16% in the period between 2000 and 2005. 

Some 30% of these students came from outside Africa while the rest were sub-Saharan Africans, with more than half being from the SADC region.  The highest number of students came from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho. Outside the SADC region, the highest number of Africans in South African universities in 2012 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The South African universities are cashing in on their reputations. The University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and University of Pretoria are ranked among the best in the region. An impressive seven out of the top 10 universities ranked best in Africa are in South Africa.  

Much cheaper
Another factor is that it’s much cheaper to study there than it is at European and American universities. Immigration processes are also much less restrictive in comparison, a plus especially for English-speaking foreign students. French-speaking Africans, meanwhile, are more inclined towards pursuing higher education in Morocco, while those from Portuguese-speaking counties favour Angola. 

Egypt is the number two destination for non-African foreign students after South Africa, attracting over 49,000 students, while Morocco comes a distant third with over 8,000 students, according to Unesco’s 2010 data. Cairo University hosted over 4,000 international students in 2010, around 2% of its undergraduate population at the time. The International University in Cairo and the Mansoura University have also had a good run attracting international students. 

Other countries’ universities that have done well in attracting students from without their borders are Uganda (15,000 international students in 2011), Ghana (over 9,000 students in 2012) and Côte d’Ivoire (over 5,000 students in 2012). 

Internationalisation is on
Also, according to Unesco, South Africa attracted 22% of mobile students from sub-Saharan Africa in 2012. Ghanaian and Ugandan universities also hosted more students from the region than ever before.  

Observers say this trends suggests that African institutions are beginning to “internationalise” in order to attract more foreign students to their institutions. Foreign students, who usually pay slightly higher fees than local students, are seen as a way for the universities to make more money to fund their programmes. 

Universities like the University of the Witwatersrand have been particularly aggressive. In 2013, it initiated a robust campaign to lure Africa’s and indeed the world’s best post-graduate brains to its campus. Vice-chancellor Adam Habib was quoted as saying that he was in a “global war for the world’s best academic talent”. The university is in an intense post-graduate recruitment drive, saying it wants to enroll 1,200 graduate students by 2014.  

It is dangling world-class, multidisciplinary research opportunities, scholarship opportunities, and affordable accommodation. Like sports talent scouts, it has teams of academics and support staff combing Africa for top students. 

University education in Africa, it seems, may just be on the brink of a revolution.

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