The changing pattern of internationalisation in Africa

Recently, there has been an interesting debate in University World News on the future of internationalisation of higher education. Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit predict a halt, if not an end, to the process, especially in Europe and North America.

The reasons given include the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, xenophobic attitudes in Europe as a result of increasing immigration and the rise of nationalism. On the other hand, Alex Usher is more optimistic, arguing that globally, internationalisation will continue to increase, but perhaps with a shift towards Oceania and Southeast Asia.

It is important to emphasise here that in these discourses the metric used for internationalisation is mainly student mobility, that the perspective is essentially one of Western countries and that hardly any mention is made of developing regions such as Africa.

How then is internationalisation faring in Africa, from a student mobility viewpoint? Are there signs of stalling there as well? Or is the pattern changing?


Africa as a continent has one of the highest outbound student mobilities in the world, representing about 10% of global student mobility. According to a 2016 report by Campus France, drawing on UNESCO statistics, in 2013 there were some 300,000 African students studying outside Africa, about 56% of whom were in European countries.

Of those studying in Europe, 92,000 (about 54%) were in France, originating mainly from North Africa but also from other Francophone African countries. The UK and the US accounted each for about 32,000 students. The preference for France is mainly because of ease of language, very low tuition fees, proximity to North Africa and no doubt the possibility of eventual emigration.

But already in 2013, there was a drop of about 10% in the number of African students studying outside Africa compared to 2011 statistics. Based on previous patterns of mobility, it seems highly probable that the events mentioned earlier would have a negative impact on African student mobility, especially to France. Internationalisation in Africa, from that viewpoint, should be stalling, if not decreasing.

Student tertiary enrolment in Africa is unacceptably low and African countries cannot meet the ever-increasing demand for quality tertiary education at a national level, whether in public or private institutions. African students wishing to study outside Africa may have to increasingly look for destinations other than Europe and the US.

From the UNESCO data, the most probable ones appear to be the Middle East, Canada and Malaysia, but from a language standpoint, these countries may be problematic for Francophone students, who represent the majority of outbound students.


It is interesting that no mention is made of China in those statistics, the reason given in the report being that China does not publish figures of the number of African students studying there.

However, a March 2017 World Education News & Reviews article mentions that, according to China’s Ministry of Education, the number of African students studying in China had increased from about 2,700 in 2005 to about 50,000 in 2015 – a staggering annual increase of about 35%. This increase is mainly due to Chinese government scholarships to African students.

Another strategy used by China to facilitate the mobility of African students to Chinese institutions is the creation in African universities of Confucius Institutes, which promote the teaching of Mandarin. The number of Confucius Institutes in Africa has increased significantly from 25 in 2013 to 54 at present.

According to the World Education News & Reviews article, at the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in South Africa, the Chinese president announced plans to provide an additional 30,000 scholarships to African students, as well as 2,000 postgraduate and doctoral scholarships. This would result in an even greater number of African students in China.

It would appear that African internationalisation may be witnessing a shift in student mobility away from Europe and the US to mainly China. It is noteworthy that almost all the students who study in China return to their home country after their studies so that brain drain is not an issue. A shift in student mobility away from Western countries to China would thus be beneficial to Africa.

Regional mobility

Another clear and growing trend in the mobility of African students is within the African region itself. According to published papers, regional mobility has more than doubled over the last 10 years, with the leading destinations being South Africa and Angola in Southern Africa, Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, Ghana and Senegal in West Africa, and Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa.

But it is South Africa that has witnessed the greatest increase. From only 12,500 incoming students in 1994, just after the end of apartheid, the number increased to about 53,000 in 2005 and then to 70,000 in 2013, with the majority of students coming from the Southern African Development Community region.

The African Union has a clear strategy to promote regional mobility and, in that context, it has launched the Mwalimu Nyerere mobility programme, the Pan African University with a flagship institute in each of the five sub-regions of Africa, and the African Quality Rating Mechanism to improve the quality of African universities and make them more attractive to regional students.

Regional student mobility still faces several challenges, including political stability, the issue of visas, comparable entry qualifications, etc, but there is little doubt that Africa will continue to witness increasing regional student mobility over the next decade, especially as opportunities for studying outside Africa become more constrained.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, the former president of the International Association of Universities and the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is also on the board of University World News – Africa.