The scramble for Africa’s growing student population

“I consider that Africa is simply the central, global, essential continent because it is here that all the contemporary challenges collide. It is in Africa that a part of the tipping of the world will be played,” said French President Emmanuel Macron.

A World Bank report lists several African economies as growing at a rate of 5% over the past decade and predicts that some African countries can expect even greater economic growth in the upcoming years. The middle class in Africa as a whole has tripled over the past 14 years, representing a potential group of families who can afford to send their children to university.

According to the Nobel Prize winner in economics, Paul Romer, over the next 16 years, all of the world’s 10 fastest growing cities will be in Africa. Moreover, 60% of the African population of 250 million are under the age of 25.


African students account for more than one in 10 international students. Yet less than 10% of Sub-Saharan African youth are enrolled in post-secondary education. In Nigeria, fewer than 40% of university applicants are regularly admitted to Nigerian universities, leaving an estimated one million students without any university placement.

Online platforms are tapping this growing interest in higher education. Unicaf University, an online higher education platform, enrolled 25,000 in January 2019, a 108% growth in four years.

eLearnAfrica announced a partnership with the Association of African Universities that would expand online learning opportunities for students enrolled in its 380 member institutions, potentially making educational opportunities available to 10 million African students.

The e-learning arm of the Pan African University was officially launched in December 2019, allowing millions of Africans to enrol in online courses and programmes.

Such statistics suggest that increased economic growth will likely translate into more African students who can afford a university education. Currently there is insufficient capacity, but there are opportunities for colleges and universities worldwide to increase their international student populations by enrolling African students, either in ‘traditional’ brick and mortar settings or through online and MOOC (massive open online course) enrolments.

What can we expect in the future?

African students will increasingly enrol in online programmes. In the report, “Educating the Masses: The rise of online education in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia”, the author Stefan Trines, research editor for World Education News and Reviews, writes that Africa is “the most dynamic e-learning market on the planet”.

For example, the National Open University of Nigeria, with more than 250,000 students, is looking to increase the number of MOOC courses available to students unable to enrol in Nigerian universities.

Former deputy minister of education in Ghana, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, wrote: “Distance education is the solution to addressing the educational needs of students who could not be admitted to public tertiary institutions. African universities need to adopt new ways of teaching through technology. Otherwise they may be rendered irrelevant and unable to compete on a global scale.”

The competition for African students

An increasing number of African students, if not enrolled in online degree programmes, will opt to remain closer to home for tertiary education. South Africa is the preferred destination with nine of the top 10 sending countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa.

And it is likely that competition will increase for African students outside of Africa. Based on encouraging enrolments of African students in 2019, expect international deans and recruiters from Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates to increase their recruitment outreach to African students.

Expect generous scholarship opportunities to increase enrolment of African students in China. Expect the Indian government to increase scholarships for African students. Expect Russia to increase recruitment and enrolment activities in Africa.

According to Irina Abramova, director of the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia plans to double the number of foreigners studying at Russian universities by 2024. She wrote: “The number of African students studying in Russia may not only reach the level of the Cold War era, but surpass it.”

What next?

Some international deans will construct new strategic African recruitment plans that include both brick and mortar options and online learning. Some universities will offer comprehensive online programmes to African students. Some universities may open branch campuses in specific African countries. Some universities will partner with African schools to offer combined and dual degree programmes.

Entrepreneurial colleges and universities, willing and capable of recruiting in both traditional and technological ways, and willing to commit for the long haul, will reap the benefits of African recruitment in 2020 and beyond. And some universities will do nothing.

Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.