African student flows – Challenging prevailing paradigms

From 11-13 June 2018, researchers representing seven African countries and officials gathered to share their case country results based on a three-year research study on international mobility to the African continent.

This research is co-led by Professor Chika Sehoole and Professor Jenny Lee and is the result of a partnership with the African Network for Internationalization of Education, with financial support from the South African National Research Foundation, with the primary aim towards African research capacity building in the internationalisation field.

We pursued this project for many reasons, starting with the need to have more empirical data on Africa’s international students. According to the United Nations, 42% of the globe’s youth aged 15-24 years will live in Africa by 2030. While youth populations in most other regions decline, Africa’s youth population is expected to continue increasing and to more than double from current levels by 2055.

At the same time, there is an expansion of higher education internationalisation efforts throughout the world. Meanwhile, empirical research coming from Africa is very limited, especially considering the fact that the number of ethnic groups and languages within the diverse continent are in the thousands.


In an effort to gather in-depth, student-level data, we have surveyed over 2,000 international students studying in one of our seven case countries, including Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda to date. The survey instrument, based on previous research in the United States, Mexico, South Korea and South Africa, along with in-depth interviews in each of the African case countries, served as our initial and ongoing dataset.

During this recent meeting, African researchers convened in Pretoria, South Africa, to discuss the findings from each of their respective countries. We learned there are similar patterns compared to most of the world’s leading destinations in the Global North. International students in Africa generally aspire for higher quality educational programmes and experiences than they would otherwise have access to in their home countries.

Like much of the world, they were also motivated by the added value of an international education for better career opportunities. We also observed regional mobility patterns, with a preference for border countries, given the benefits of closer proximity to home and more familiarity with the local languages and cultures.

African circulation

What is more interesting, however, are the ways that African student mobility challenges prevailing paradigms about international student flows. While the Global North continues to dominate as the world’s international student hosts, African universities educate mostly African international students, with considerable mobility within its various regions.

And while Africa is usually a short-term destination for Europeans and Americans, African students largely tend to study in Africa for terminal degrees and plan to return to their home countries upon graduation rather than stay on.

Overall, they have reported positive academic outcomes and high levels of satisfaction with their educational experience. These findings suggest that contrary to sweeping generalisations about African brain drain, there is a considerable proportion of Africans who are obtaining quality international education from other African countries, with the intention of bringing their newly acquired knowledge and skills back home and ultimately, they build capacity within their home countries as well as retain talent within the continent.

Colonial ties

Colonialisation left a clear imprint in Africa’s higher education systems but remains evident in international mobility patterns. Our data suggests a preference for coloniser countries, such as the case of France for Senegalese or the United Kingdom for Nigerians, but studying within the continent was often referred to as a more affordable and realistic option.

Colonial remnants remain. Despite the considerable diversity within African countries, the colonial language has been maintained as the dominant language, drawing students who share the same colonial language, but also presenting numerous challenges for other international students’ adjustments both within and outside the classroom.

Safety and security

Another different feature of African student mobility are the roles of safety and security. For example, while travel to Egypt is generally discouraged by the United Kingdom and considered “dangerous” by the United States, many international students from Egypt’s neighbouring countries sought to study in the country for safety reasons.

The relative conditions of their home countries ‘pushed’ them to seek higher education in nearby Egypt. Likewise, all of our case countries included refugees and asylum seekers, seeking relative stability elsewhere.

Nevertheless, challenges remain, such as the rise of Boko Haram and the associated violence in Nigeria, and political instabilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Southern Sudan that, among other reasons, may push international students to nearby destinations, such as Uganda and Kenya.

Religion and culture

While upward mobility is often explained as the driving rationale for seeking degrees abroad, our research also features culture as crucial in students’ destination choices. Familiarity with a neighbouring culture, and particularly shared majority religions, such as Christianity in Nigeria and Ghana and Islam in Egypt, was a major determining factor.

The choice of study country and university for religious reasons was reportedly further steered by parents, who recommended the institution to their children. For some, prophetic advice from their local pastors was also identified as very influential in their decision.

While these preliminary findings provide important insights into understanding patterns of intra-Africa student mobility, the researchers agreed that more data needed to be collected so that authoritative conclusions can be made based on a larger database, including more African countries. As our data gathering and analyses continue, we remain committed to African capacity building among current researchers and the next generation of researchers.

The project has also involved African students who have been involved in the study as part of their postgraduate training. On a broader scale, the project aims to inform African policy-makers and higher education officials for strategic decision-making, equip African researchers on data gathering and assessment, and educate others on Africa’s important role in educating Africa’s, as well as the rest of the world’s students. We look forward to sharing our empirical results in the near future.

Dr Chika Sehoole is dean and professor in the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Dr Jenny J Lee is professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, United States, and visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

African researchers include: Olaide Agbeniga (Nigeria), Christiana Badoo (Ghana), Mamadou Dimé (Senegal), Kenneth Alfred Kiiza (Uganda), Dr Mahmoud Sayed Marei (Egypt), Dr Jackline Nyerere (Kenya), and Justice Ratshilaya (South Africa).

African Network for Internationalization of Education representative: Blair Joseph Otieno
South Africa National Research Foundation representative: Dr Sepo Hachigonta