Aiming for a slice of the African mobile student pie

Africa has a highly mobile student population, with more than 380,000 students abroad. An ambitious higher education hub goal of Mauritius is to grow its international student numbers from a current 1,000 to 100,000, many of them from elsewhere in Africa.

Building is under way to provide accommodation and learning facilities as more foreign students enrol, attracted by the solid higher education provided on the island and perhaps especially by the growing number of international universities setting up there.

Currently as many as 10,000 of Mauritius' 50,000 tertiary students - a very high 20% - are studying overseas. This compares to an all-Africa average of around 6% of students abroad.

The island undoubtedly hopes that more of its brightest young minds will stay and fewer will therefore be lost to the diaspora as opportunities to obtain world-class education and qualifications at home increase.

Mahen Kundasamy, High Commissioner of Mauritius in the United Kingdom, told the Mauritius International Knowledge Investment Forum 2014 held in London last month that the island's higher education internationalisation plans also opened up a "clear opportunity" for the African continent.

Some 60% of Africans are under 25 years old and fewer than one in 10 of them have the opportunity to continue studying after school. "Bringing quality higher education to their doorstep will have a positive impact on the socio-economic development of Africa," Kundasamy said.

The forum - the first to be held outside the tropical Indian Ocean island - provides a platform for sharing knowledge and experience and building partnerships between local and international players.

Mauritian students abroad

Many of the world's more than four million tertiary students studying outside their country do not return, and this is especially true for Africa.

According to a report on global migration released by the United Nations and OECD last October, there are about 30 million African migrants out of the global total of 232 million. In the past five years alone, 450,000 tertiary educated Africans have migrated to OECD nations.

The emigration of highly educated citizens is a major concern across the developing world, and brain drain is particularly acute for small countries.

One in every nine people who are born in Africa and have a university degree are migrants in one of the OECD's 34 member states, and the proportion of highly educated people residing in OECD countries is especially high for Mauritius - 41% - which in Africa is exceeded only by Zimbabwe at 43%.

Young Mauritians who study abroad go mainly to the countries with which the island has historical ties, according to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

France, the United Kingdom and India each have between 1,500 and 1,700 Mauritian students, followed by South Africa at around 1,100 and Malaysia with nearly 300.

Aside from India, the destination choices of Mauritian students mirror those of other African students.

Last year the French government's Campus France reported more than 380,000 African students abroad in 2010 - 10% of international students globally - and found France to be the most popular destination, hosting 111,200 African students abroad or 29.2% of the total.

South Africa was second with 57,300 (15%) and then came the UK (37,000) and America at 36,700 - 9.7% each.

International students in Mauritius

In 2012 the around 1,000 foreign students studying in Mauritius were mainly from India, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, the Seychelles and other Sub-Saharan African countries, according to the government.

Regionally, 47% of international students were from Africa, 22% from India, 19% from the Indian Ocean region - islands such as Seychelles, Madagascar and Maldives - 8% from Europe and 4% from elsewhere.

On 28 March the government of Mauritius kick-started a new drive to attract students from elsewhere in Africa with the announcement that it was offering, initially, up to 50 scholarships for a maximum of four years, depending on the course.

The scholarships will provide a monthly living allowance of MUR8,300 (US$272) and will meet annual tuition fees up to around MUR100,000 (US$3,284) as well as airfares at the start and end of study.

With the Mauritian government aiming to attract 100,000 international students, questions arise regarding their potential impact on a country with only 1.3 million people.

If the island achieves its target, over 7% of the total population will comprise foreign students. Also, at current enrolment levels of around 40,000 local tertiary students, international students would outnumber local students by two to one.

Could this not lead to resentment about international students squeezing out locals, and an over-preponderance of foreigners on the tiny island?

Not so, the government believes.

First, as a popular tourist destination with a small population, Mauritians are thoroughly used to large foreign populations.

Second, with an enrolment rate of 50% of all school-leavers in tertiary education, and with plans to raise this to a 70% enrolment rate by 2020 and to expand government support for needy students, there will be very few qualified Mauritians excluded from higher education.