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Higher education hubs could become ‘enclaves of privilege’

Higher education hubs, and particularly those in poorer developing countries in Africa that are set up to attract foreign institutions and international students, could have unforeseen economic and social impacts on surrounding areas, the Worldviews conference heard.

In particular, international higher education hubs risked becoming privileged enclaves rather than contributing to economic and regional development in the host country, and could draw resources away from local public universities, to the detriment of the host’s higher education system.

Speaking at the Worldviews 2013: Global trends in media and higher education conference in Toronto, Omotade ‘Tade’ Akin Aina said hubs populated by international branch campuses could “add to the perception of social inequality”.

Aina is programme director for higher education and libraries in Africa, for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which was one of the conference's major sponsors.

He said a university hub, creating the policy, political and cultural environment, including improving public safety and security to build confidence so that people would come, also raised questions of unequal regional development.

“In a hub you might have great research projects in a branch campus – and just some kilometres away is an older, local public university that has been there for years,” Aina said.

“You have all these handsome and beautiful young people from the United States and Canada, fine motorbikes riding into the rural areas, and there is no connection at all between that branch campus and the universities that are there in terms of relationships, in terms of sharing of knowledge, and in terms of collaboration on research.”

Infrastructure resources

Significant resources often had to be diverted to creating the infrastructure for a higher education hub. Foreign branch campuses were asking for tax rebates, infrastructures such as new roads, more electricity generation, and increased internet bandwidth, Aina told University World News.

For example, Tanzania was planning a higher education hub in the city of Arusha, which also hosts the headquarters of the East African community – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – and could be a magnet for students from those countries.

Arusha already had an African Institute for Science and Technology, one of the four Nelson Mandela initiatives supported by the World Bank and the African Development Bank and the Aga Khan University, as well as other private universities being set up.

“So now you have a debate because this [hub] looks like a very attractive possibility in that part of the world. But it changes the nature of Arusha itself,” Aina said. As the hub developed, there would be new universities – in a region surrounding Arusha dominated by agriculture and Masai herdsmen.

“What are created are artificial enclaves of gloss and wealth that could provoke local resentment.”

The World Bank and the International Finance Corporation had estimated such infrastructure at about US$200 million, he said. Tanzania was a low-income country, which was mobilising resources and diverting them to a particular kind of project. Politically, this was going to be very difficult.

Effect on local universities

Other speakers at the conference were concerned about the effect of hubs on local public universities. A hub could lead to an internal ‘brain drain’ from public universities to the new private institutions in the hub as they could pay staff more.

Botswana and Mauritius have stated aims of developing higher education or knowledge hubs in Africa to diversify their economies – in Botswana’s case to reduce dependence on revenues from diamonds, its main industry.

These countries also wanted to reduce the number of students going abroad to study as this resulted in an outflow of foreign exchange, said Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary general of the Association of African Universities.

The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius now hosts half a dozen universities and attracts around 2,000 foreign students. The private university sector had itself created a comprehensive education village using some of the policies of government, Mohamedbhai said.

But he said that neither Botswana nor Mauritius had a strong public higher education system. In both countries, “one of the declared objectives of creating a hub is to improve local institutions”.

Mohamedbhai questioned whether this would actually happen: “Will the foreign institutions in the hub weaken the local public institutions? This is my main concern about the hubs – that there can be a negative effect on the local public institutions.”

He said it was essential for developing countries to strengthen their local institutions at the same time as providing an environment conducive to the setting up of foreign branch campuses.

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