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Following Asia’s path in international higher education

Several recent higher education initiatives in Africa suggest that the rest of the world is beginning to view Africa as the next frontier for internationalisation. Will it follow the same pathway – from twinning programmes to partnership programmes and branch campuses – as occurred in Asia? And will France take advantage of language issues to increase its numbers of international students?

In the past six months, several important new developments have occurred concerning higher education in Africa:

  • In January, IFC, a member of the World Bank, invested US$150 million in the private for-profit Laureate group to develop activities in Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa. The first publicised use of this cash was to take a significant stake (ultimately up to 50%) in a joint venture with Monash University in relation to their successful campus in South Africa.
  • The World Bank (again) will soon select around eight centres of excellence among African universities, each receiving US$8 million to strengthen its research and develop new programmes.
  • Lancaster University has announced the opening of a campus in Accra, Ghana, with currently 58 students.
  • CEIBIS (the China Europe International Business School), one of the best business schools in the world, jointly created by the European Union and China and based in Shanghai, has been offering an executive MBA in Accra for the past few years.
  • Webster University announced the opening of its first campus in Africa – again, in Ghana.
  • Limkokwing University, a prominent private Malaysian university, now has campuses in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
  • 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 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 looking to have a footprint with regard to Africa’s resources, what is more striking is that many are from institutions that would not invest if there were 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.

By the same token, I have never seen a UK university opening offshore operations in the absence of a potential return on investment – and often they want an immediate one. Of course, we have all witnessed failures in the past 10 years, but certainly not more than in any other industries. Is this the signal that other universities will or should open operations in Africa?


Africa will enjoy a growing 18- to 22-year-old population for the next 10 years, with Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Angola among the top 10 in the world in absolute numbers. Several countries also have a projected gross domestic product growth above 5% a year for the next 10 years, including 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 that are net exporters of students for higher education are good candidates for the opening of a branch campus.

This was and is the case for Singapore, Malaysia and 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 difficult for business, including for basic security reasons and due to general political instability.

Historically, we have seen countries considered ‘easier’ or ‘friendlier’ becoming hubs to cover for other ‘less friendly’ countries (this can be very subjective, of course). That is why, viewed from far away from Europe, for example, Singapore looked like the best place to open a programme and should be able to attract students from neighbouring countries.

The same applies to Dubai. Gradually, foreign universities ventured into neighbouring countries. In most cases, this started with pathway or twinning programmes, before moving to the opening of full branch campuses. That is why Ghana, despite its relative ‘small size’, now sees several interesting initiatives hoping to attract students from Nigeria.

Similarly, Mauritius would be a good candidate to become a hub for East Africa; and, as it is one of the few bilingual countries in the region, it 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 the Middle East – regions where studying in the UK still has its lustre, 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 over the next 10 to 15 years.

Will the development follow the traditional path from twinning to programmes hosted by local partners and then to full branch campuses?

Will initiatives be mainly ‘North-South’ as 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.

* Francois Therin is dean of the school of business at the Curtin University Sarawak, in Malaysia. Follow Francois on Twitter at @ftherin or on his blog.
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