Is China the new lodestar for Africa’s students?

Within the global context, 20th century higher education has been dominated by institutions of the Global North. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent spread of market economies to the Global South, a growing band of elites hankered to attend fabled institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, the Sorbonne or at least to secure themselves a tertiary education in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the like.

As anyone who has worked in higher education, either in the Euro-American sphere or beyond, knows, the aforementioned countries function as brands, in and of themselves. For example, when I worked as a lecturer in Taiwan, hardly anyone in the faculty had a PhD from Taiwan; they mostly attended US institutions, with the remainder from the United Kingdom and France. If you had a PhD from Taiwan, it seemed as if you didn’t stand much of a chance.

While the African context, broadly speaking, is not as extreme a case as Taiwan, these centres have long functioned as the gravity points of African scholarly pilgrimage – for the lucky few, in practice; for most, in the imagination. But this is changing.

Centre of educational pilgrimage

With China’s growing integration into the global market economy, a new centre of attraction is developing. Certainly, with China’s historical role as a key player in fostering a culture of global socialism, Chinese higher education, like its counterpart, the Soviet Union, has long served as a centre of educational pilgrimage.

Africans, for example, have been travelling to China for educational purposes since the 1950s. What makes the current situation different is vastly increased numbers.

China’s soft power initiative, which has accompanied its economic ascendency – particularly its ‘going out’ policy of resource, infrastructure and trade engagement with the developing world – has been accompanied by a number of scholarly exchanges, the establishment of Confucius Institutes and the offer of thousands of scholarships. Some 6,000 scholarships were offered to African students in 2015 alone.

In interviews with African students studying in China, it is significant that they often express surprise at the multicultural nature of foreign student composition: people from a host of other African countries, Latin America, Europe, the US, Russia, South and Southeast Asia. This provides exposure to a parallel cosmopolitanism normally thought of as the preserve of Euro-American higher education.

Second, Chinese universities, taking their cue from their Euro-American counterparts, are internationalising (read 'entrepreneuralising') their campuses by attracting fee-paying students from abroad.

In fact, there are currently more fee-paying African students studying in China than there are students on scholarships. This is significant. In political scientist Joseph Nye’s theory of soft power, an important element is that a state’s exertion of influence abroad is more likely to be successful if that influence emanates from beyond strictly state measures.

An obvious example of this is the way in which pop culture, be it American, British, Korean or Japanese, has gained wide international audiences abroad minus state intervention. In a similar vein, the real future trajectory of China’s success as a higher educational superpower lies in a snowballing effect of paying students.

Scholarships may help bolster this and Confucius Institutes may give potential students a taste of China at home, but it is ultimately an individual and institutional groundswell that will serve as the ultimate attractor.

One-way flow

In Africa, this is already happening. State and private African institutions increasingly hold degrees from China in legitimate esteem in ways that the Euro-American sphere certainly do not (unless, of course, you are pursuing a China-related topic). It’s now not simply about taking a degree in China, but about which university you studied at and the attendant pecking order that goes with that.

While the Chinese government urges the equality of the relationship, favouring terms such as ‘win-win’ and ‘mutual exchange’, the flow is ultimately more one way than the other.

Numerous memorandums of understanding have been signed between Chinese and African universities and the Chinese government is in the process of setting up several research centres within Africa.

But for anyone familiar with the higher education environment in China, domestic and international university rankings are nothing short of an obsession (Even Chinese President Xi Jinping, a man who has done more than his last few predecessors to shut out corrupting Western values, has a daughter who attended Harvard University).

Only a handful of African universities make the global top 500. It is no surprise then that one of the few annual student exchanges in which Chinese students conduct credit-bearing courses in Africa, is at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, one of Africa’s top-rated higher education institutions.

If it is true that more Africans want to study within China, it is equally true that more Chinese want to study in Euro-American institutions (some of which have already opened up campuses within China itself).

Are we witnessing then, an emerging new global hierarchy with the Global North still at the top, or, as some observers have noted, are the Chinese bringing this expertise back home to grow their own institutions? Certainly, the Chinese state is aggressively competing to raise its universities’ international rankings.

But these are early days yet; the United States had over one million international students in 2015, while China had just under 400,000. Certainly, as the growth of the Euro-American security state makes life increasingly difficult for foreign students and as China’s sustained growth offers former colonial preserves new concrete and imagined centres of (comparatively affordable) cosmopolitan learning, the more a bifurcation seems likely in global educational mobility.

It is a reflection, if you will, of new currents of globalisation increasingly short-circuiting the Western world.

Ross Anthony is the interim director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.