China-Africa – Reviewing higher education’s gains

Relations with China have revived Africa’s prospects in diverse ways, with investment, trade and development activities that have helped the continent achieve economic growth of 4.5% in 2015. An increasing focus on higher education and skills training was highlighted at the second summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in South Africa this month.

There, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced US$60 billion in funding support to the continent over the next three years, and agreement on growing China-Africa relations through a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.

The China-Africa relationship

The modern relationship between China and Africa traces its origins to five decades ago.

Three periods can be clearly identified, the first during the 1960s as most African countries gained independence from colonialists, and the second when China acquired a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council in 1971.

The latest, post-Maoist phase is characterised by the liberalisation and substantial growth of the Chinese economy and increased influence across the globe – and in Africa in particular.

China has emerged as Africa’s largest trading partner over the past decade. Trade volumes between the two rose significantly, from US$10 billion in 2000 to more than US$198 billion in 2012. In the same vein, China’s economic position strengthened, overtaking industrialised countries including the United States as the largest economy in the world in December 2014.

Previously, China-Africa relations were limited to supporting African liberation movements, the spread of socialist ideology, and mega-construction projects such as railway lines – the Tanzania-Zambia railway was the biggest aid project on the continent in the 1970s – roads, stadiums and ports as well as ongoing infrastructural projects across Africa.

Education collaboration origins

Collaboration between China and Africa has recently been expanding to include higher education collaboration between Chinese and African universities, and academic and student exchange.

This article focuses on Chinese education initiatives in Africa in the form of scholarships as well as the recent establishment of Confucius Institutes in many of Africa’s public universities.

It is important to note that China’s educational and technical assistance first emerged strongly during the 1960s, after African countries gained independence.

African students from Algeria to Zanzibar studied at the China Institute of Foreign Language in Beijing. In 1966, for instance, China supported Tanzania and Somalia with teaching equipment and sent Chinese teachers to various African countries to help to fill gaps left by departed colonial experts.

However, after Communist Party leader Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, China stopped all African education programmes, with all Chinese teachers recalled and foreign students expelled. It was only in 1970-71 that China resumed education cooperation by sending maths, physics, chemistry and language teachers to the Congo.

Current higher education support

Various incentives and policies initiated by the Chinese government – such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC – have facilitated an increase in the number of African students in Chinese institutions.

Migration of African students into China has become more formalised and institutionalised. For instance, in 2005 Chinese universities hosted a total of 2,757 African students and by 2006 the number had increased to 3,737 – a 40% hike.

It was further reported that by 2009 there were 12,436 African students in Chinese higher education institutions, and the number is set to expand as the Chinese government has pledged to double the number of scholarships for African students.

China’s open-door policy and its recently devalued currency have made living costs more affordable and student visa requirements simpler than is the case in most Western countries. Such pull factors have increasingly attracted not only government-sponsored but also self-sponsored African students to many Chinese universities.

Confucius Institutes

Confucius Institutes, which are governed by the Office of Chinese Language Council International and run by the non-profit Hanban affiliated to the Ministry of Education, have expanded into many African public universities, providing startup grants of US$100,000 to US$150,000 per institute.

Worldwide there are some 500 Confucius Institutes and 1,000 of the smaller Confucius Classrooms, according to Hanban figures. In Africa there are 46 institutes in more than 30 countries and some 23 classrooms.

The institutes provide Chinese-language programmes, train Chinese teachers, and administer Chinese exams and teaching services to African students in their home countries: hence one does not need to travel thousands of kilometres to China to learn the Chinese language and culture.

At the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s oldest, the Confucius Institute was established on 9 October 2013, in partnership with Zhejiang Normal University, which provides instructors in Chinese language and culture. To attract Tanzanians, the institute has offered scholarships for courses. According to the director of the institute, teaching Chinese and promoting cultural exchange are the core activities.

To ensure best practices in the operation of Confucius Institutes, Hanban has organised several conferences bringing institute staff from across Africa together to share their experiences and operations with colleagues from around the globe. A joint conference of Confucius Institutes was held from 24-25 June 2014 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

On the down side, there have been concerns over the extent to which Tanzania’s Commission for Universities was consulted in the establishment of Confucius Institutes, and whether it can regularly audit quality assurance mechanisms in institute programmes, as prescribed by the Universities Act No 7 of 2005.

Some conclusions

One interesting observation regarding China’s Africa policy is that of ‘inclusivity’. Whether the African country is rich or poor in natural resources, democratic or not, China maintains the relationship.

But why are China-Africa relations important for Africa’s future?
  • • Scholarships provide opportunities for human resource capacity building and collaborative research amid budget deficits, the HIV-Aids pandemic and recent extremism in many African countries.
  • • Chinese scholarship alumni association(s) may influence governments – African and China – by identifying priority areas on which scholarship programmes should focus to ensure their impacts are felt by the larger community.
  • • Ongoing mega-construction projects by Chinese firms. For instance, the University of Dodoma, on completion, will accommodate 40,000 students. Hence there is expanded enrolment for students who could otherwise be left out.
There is no doubt that China-Africa relations have helped to revive Africa through trade, investment and socio-economic endeavours.

For example the Tripartite Free Trade Area, or TFTA, established in 2015 and involving East and Southern African regional economic blocs, signifies a major attempt by Africa to reform internal trade. If TFTA and the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 are well implemented, eventually Africa’s human and natural resources will be optimally used for the benefit of all Africans.

Strict immigration regulations to the United States and European countries associated with high financial requirements, expensive living costs and tuition fees may give China preferred higher education destination status among African students.

Evidence indicates that increased Chinese government scholarships to the doctorate level have led to a rapidly increasing number of African students in Chinese universities. Self-sponsored student numbers have also increased.

In addition, the mushrooming of Confucius Institutes points to deep penetration of China into African higher education systems. This shift is one of the remarkable and visible parameters of the internationalisation of higher education on African soil in recent years.

* Simon Ngalomba is a lecturer in the department of educational foundations, management and lifelong learning at the University of Dar es Salaam. Ngalomba’s research interest is in the field of internationalisation of education, human rights and education access for marginalised groups. He is a member of the African Network for Internationalisation in Education, ANIE. E-mail: