Chinese investment in higher education – No free lunch

Against the backdrop of China’s promise of new scholarships for African students, funding for training seminars and workshops, and exchange opportunities, Africans would do well to remember 'there is no such thing as a free lunch', according to a higher education expert.

At the recent 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the Chinese President Xi Jinping said his government will honour its previous promises and increase opportunities for Africa’s young people. His government pledged to provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities for seminars and workshops. It will also invite 2,000 young Africans to visit China for exchanges, he said.

Recent investments by China in Nigerian universities have sparked debate about the implications of China’s investment in higher education in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole.

At the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State, a new undergraduate degree programme called ‘3+2’ will see students spend three years at the Ahmadu Bello University and two years at the Central South University in China. In Edo State, China awarded scholarships to 47 indigenes studying in universities in the state. There are also plans for a herbal medicine university, announced by Duan Zhongqi, deputy consul-general of the People’s Republic of China Consulate in Lagos.

Speaking to University World News, Mohammed Kyari, a senior scientific officer of the African Union Scientific Technical Research Commission, which is at the forefront of promoting science and development of African Union member states, said higher education institutions should not rest on their oars as investment from China did not mean no strings attached.

“We as stakeholders must recognise that nobody gives anybody anything for free. This is the time for academics from universities to work together and come up with decisions that will enable the investments to be channelled into the appropriate places to advance the university system in Africa.

“This is the time for Africa to look inwards, look at our local strength and use it to fly.”

He said African scientists, engineers, technology developers, innovators and inventors in universities and research institutions should work with entrepreneurs, policy-makers and the ordinary man on the street to determine the direction investments should take instead of letting the Chinese dictate what is to be done. Africans also needed to understand from the Chinese what their expectations are and what they hope to achieve, he said.

Kyari said the interest from China was not new. As an undergraduate student at university, he also went on an exchange programme to China.

Kyari warned that keeping quiet was not an option. He said stakeholders needed to start asking the right questions and insist that Chinese investments should focus on the needs of African universities and are translated into economic growth.

“Higher education experts living in Africa should also reach out to diaspora Africans and make them key players in the educational direction of the continent … There is a great will among Africans to grow the knowledge economy and use it to holistically tackle and solve the multidimensional problems facing Africa as a continent,” he said.

Kyari said investments should be focused on technology, ICT and projects already on the ground that need to be commercialised.

The need to be clear on outcomes was also emphasised by Professor Abubakar Adamu Rasheed, executive secretary of the National Universities Commission of Nigeria.

In remarks on foreign investments and partnerships at the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities conference held in early September at Redeemer’s University, South West Nigeria, he said: “The signing of memoranda of understanding with foreign universities … accepting funding is not bad, but there is need for universities in our country to work together and chart an effective course to solve Nigeria’s problems.”

Some vice-chancellors in Nigeria declined to speak to University World News on the issue of Chinese educational investment. One said the political terrain was “too hot” to air opinions while another said there was a risk of their university being used as a scapegoat and or being delisted from funding opportunities coming from the government.