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Moving beyond price to recruit international students

Uganda excels at providing a truly African university experience, grounded in addressing the development challenges of the continent and equipping graduates to work across a wide range of industry sectors and professions.

Makerere University stands proud as one of the pioneering learning institutions on the continent; it has trained presidents, senior business executives, academics, scientists and community leaders from across Africa.

Today this rich heritage has grown into 29 universities in Uganda with areas of academic excellence in the health sciences, HIV-Aids research, seeking a cure for malaria and developing skilled graduates to tackle many of the region’s development challenges.

Because of the perceived potential of the education sector to contribute to Uganda’s economic growth and export development, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Uganda Export Promotion Board (UEPB) commissioned the Marketing Uganda HE project.

The project ran from October 2010 to March 2012 and focused on assessing the capacity of Uganda’s universities to recruit more international students from across the East African and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or COMESA, regions.

Scale of international recruitment

Official information about the higher education sector and data from 17 of the 29 universities in Uganda show that there are currently about 16,000 international students at Uganda’s universities among a total population of around 200,000 students.

The trend data show a steady year-on-year increase in numbers, from around 2,947 students in 2004 to the current levels. Most foreign students are from Kenya, while others come from Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Low tuition fees at Uganda’s institutions are the major attraction for foreign students.

Kampala International University leads with 6,715 international students, followed by the universities of Makerere (2,444), Bugema (862), the Islamic University in Uganda (767), Makerere University Business School (671) and Busoga (575). Many other universities surveyed had very low numbers of international students; in most cases there were fewer than 100.

International students choose to study in Uganda for many different reasons:

  • Uganda’s education is cheap in terms of tuition fees and cost of living, making it affordable for international students.
  • The country provides a safe environment for studying.
  • There are diverse academic programmes and types of universities and and a range of quality of graduates.
  • Ugandan universities are unique in the region in accommodating special-needs students, and in many cases these courses are the only ones offered in the region.

Key issues facing higher education

A survey of universities highlighted two primary issues that have a significant impact on the number of international students at Ugandan universities.

The first is lack of funding to invest in teaching infrastructure. The second is ad hoc approaches taken in crafting the ‘international student experience’, from initial marketing to recruiting, admissions, reception and support while at university.

The biggest issue is price, and by definition resources. Restrictive pricing policies at Ugandan universities, especially those that are publicly owned, have meant that the higher education sector is persistently under-resourced.

Perversely, in some cases Ugandan universities are charging international students the same price as local students. Across the sector, prices are below cost per student, meaning that the sector is not able to improve the quality of the student experience and thereby improve its competitive position in the region.

Low price is a key attraction for international students and has underpinned the growth of this segment of the student body.

Case study

The Kampala International University hospital and medical school in Ishaka highlights the attractiveness of Uganda’s universities, with many of the medical students coming from across the East African region.

Clearly the medical facilities, quality of teaching and lack of opportunities to study in students' home countries make the university attractive. The low cost of living is another key factor – the university provides student accommodation at a very low cost.

Despite this success, the financial viability of the institution is at risk without additional support from government and the ability to raise prices.

Strategic marketing framework

The outcomes of the project have included a series of guidance notes about international marketing practices, a feasibility study for a web portal for Marketing Uganda HE and a study guide for international students. Project outcomes have led to:

  • The establishment of a national higher education marketing managers’ network.
  • The development of a blog to promote Uganda HE to prospective international students.
  • The development of a joint marketing event by universities supported by the UEPB and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and hosted by the Ugandan embassy in Rwanda.

These outcomes will hopefully support greater coherence in the approach to internationalising higher education in Uganda.

However, a fundamental question remains for Uganda HE: how does it deliver an international student ‘offer’ that is compelling, competitive and sustainable?

* Keith Herrmann is director of the consultancy Higher Ed Research. He was lead consultant to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Uganda Export Promotion Board for the Marketing Uganda HE project.

* This article is a shortened version of an article published in the April 2012 edition of the Borderless Report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) and is available here.
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