The merits of equality in Africa-China HE collaborations

The China-Africa relationship goes back centuries as evidenced by the discovery of Chinese coins and porcelain in East African archaeological sites. Much more recently, in the 1950s, the relationship took the form of bilateral trade agreements between China and African countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Somalia.

The Chinese also provided support to Southern African liberation movements, including Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola or MPLA in Angola, the Zimbabwe African National Union or ZANU, and the Mozambique Liberation Front FRELIMO.

As part of support to liberation movements in Southern Africa fighting white minority rule during the1970s and 1980s, China constructed 1,860 kilometres of railway from Tanzania to Zambia (TAZARA), also popularly known as the 'Great Uhuru Railway', as an alternative transport route to the white-owned railways in Southern Rhodesia, Angola and South Africa.

TAZARA enabled countries to transport minerals and agricultural products from landlocked countries such as Zambia to the Dar es Salaam port for shipment to overseas markets. The railway line has been identified as China’s largest aid issued to Africa to date.

As part of China’s economic reform in the 1990s, policy approaches towards Africa were incorporated into the national comprehensive trade and financial strategy, unlike the previous relationships which were pegged along political lines. The new reforms promoted investment and economic assistance, the Great Economic and Trade Strategy aimed at exploiting technology and finance to facilitate foreign economic cooperation.

Under the new reforms, concessional loans and preferential credits were managed by the Export-Import Bank of China and the Agricultural Development Bank of China.

Chinese economic reform also enabled Africa to remain at the centre of the Chinese economy by continuing support in the form of concessional loans to support industries. Typical examples in Africa include the Urafiki textile industry in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the Mulungushi textile industry in Zambia. In this way China has maintained a stable economic relationship with African countries for decades.

During the second summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC II) held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced US$60 billion in funds to support African development projects over three years (2016-18) and an agreement on growing China-Africa relations through a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.

Even more recently, the focus in partnerships has been turning to skills development and enhancing academic capacity in African universities.

Chinese HE initiatives in Africa

China-Africa higher education collaboration encompasses several forms including Chinese government scholarships and university collaborations, vocational training, Chinese language teaching in African universities, construction of university demonstration schools and provision of educational materials; and partnerships with multilateral organisations on education.

The mode in which these educational initiatives are implemented is through African government ministries and agencies which identify scholarship recipients and institutions to receive aid from China in their respective countries.

China remains a preferred higher education destination due to its favourable education policies promulgated since the 1955 Bandung Conference of non-aligned countries, and China’s open door policy in the 1980s. The Chinese government scholarship, which offers a full bursary comprising tuition fees, campus accommodation, an open return air ticket and monthly stipend has been very successful, representing significant financial support for African students who cannot afford higher education.

According to media reports there have also been an increasing number of self-sponsored African students in Chinese universities, due to affordable fees and living costs and the Chinese universities’ reputation.

The Confucius Institutes

According to Hartig (2012) it can be argued that Confucius Institutes emerged as one of the recent internationalisation tools of the Chinese education system. To date, Confucius Institutes have been established in many African universities, receiving grants of US$100,000 to US$150,000 for each institute.

Since inception in 2004 the Confucius Institute has been the largest Chinese language and cultural initiative across the world, operating in a unique way compared with other language and cultural initiatives such as the British Council, France’s Alliance Francaise, Germany’s Goethe-Institut or Spain’s Instituto Cervantes.

In Africa the Confucius Institute is characterised by a partnership between a Chinese and a host African university managed by two co-directors, one from China and the other a member of academic staff from the host institution.

Confucius Institutes are governed and operated by the non-profit Hanban, or Office of Chinese Language Council International, attached to the Ministry of Education. There are currently 500 Confucius Institutes and 1,000 smaller Confucious classrooms around the world.

At the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, a Confucius Institute was established in 2013 with a partnership with Zhejiang Normal University which provides teachers in Chinese language and culture.

The 33 Confucius Institutes currently operating in Africa have their origins in earlier partnerships with China in the late 1990s which offered specialised short-term training to African civil servants.

They supplement another universities-based partnership known as the 20 Plus 20 Project initiated in 2009 at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The programme partners 20 universities from both China and Africa with the Chinese universities providing student and staff exchange opportunities, scholarships and Chinese-language tuition.

African university infrastructure development

Chinese support accounts for a large portion of African universities’ infrastructure. A good example is the library construction project at the University of Dar es Salaam which is being funded by China with a grant of US$40 million. The building will accommodate up to 2,100 people and includes a public library, resource centre, Confucius Institute and conference hall.

In addition, ongoing construction at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania by Chinese firms signifies that country’s influence in the African university’s infrastructure development.

The main funder of the China-Africa higher education initiatives is the Chinese government, while the contribution of African countries towards developing their own human resources is often negligible. There are certain implications arising from this situation, one of which is that when Chinese funding stops or there are changes in the Chinese priorities, such initiatives will be threatened.

It can be argued that China-Africa relations help to supplement inadequate African higher education budgets – a deficit which has an impact on the quality of African graduates and their ability to compete in global labour markets.

It may also be argued that despite Africa’s limited financial contributions in the current China-Africa higher education relations, collaboration is crucial for capacity building and knowledge sharing and in this regard, true partnerships have emerged between Confucius Institutes and African host institutions.

Reflections from an African perspective

However, despite its significant contribution to support African higher education capacities, the China-Africa higher education relationship needs to be fine-tuned to produce a more balanced and favourable relationship for the sake of both parties.

Firstly, collaboration should be focused on science, technology and innovation education. Data indicates that China accounts for 20% of total world R&D expenditure, hence it is an opportunity for African universities to use existing collaboration with Chinese universities and research centres to share international best practices aimed at solving societal problems, as well as advancing the frontiers of knowledge. What is needed therefore is research and development oriented collaboration.

Furthermore, for China-Africa higher education collaboration to be sustainable, African counterparts should also contribute sustainably in terms of both funding and the setting of agendas. The current donor-recipient framework creates imbalance in agenda setting and priorities identification, making it impossible to have equal partners and attain goals that are mutually beneficial.

Financial over-dependence on China is a short-term approach. According to Guruz (2011), Africa’s inadequate allocation to higher education has negatively impacted the continent’s ability to collaborate with other regions across the world. What is really needed is reciprocity and equality.


China-Africa higher education collaboration can be used to supplement the efforts of individual universities but it cannot be a substitute for national human resources development or local capacity building initiatives. African countries need to allocate adequate funds for the development of their own human resources and invest in research and development, particularly in science, technology and innovation.

In addition, while China-Africa higher education collaboration has been characterised by the teaching of Chinese language and culture to Africans, it may now be time to incorporate African languages in the existing Confucius Institute set-up, to enable Chinese students and business people to learn African languages and culture as a way to facilitate student mobility and enhance commercial trade.

Simon Ngalomba is a lecturer in the department of educational foundations, management and lifelong learning in the School of Education at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This article is based on a presentation he made at a recent "Symposium on Belt and Road Initiative: In search of non-conventional investment opportunities in Sino-Tanzania cooperation", held in November 2017 at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at: