Africa’s appetite for transnational education is growing

Prestige and a strong affinity for the United Kingdom’s world-class and cutting-edge university education is increasingly attracting transnational education students from Africa who have been looking for life-changing career opportunities without having to travel out of the continent.

According to Universities UK International, or UUKi, an arm of Universities UK and the collective voice of UK universities on the international stage, out of 510,835 transnational education students studying for qualifications offered by UK universities 56,140 were hosted in African countries in 2020-21.

Unlike the long tradition whereby the students temporarily relocated from their countries of origin to foreign destinations to seek higher education, transnational education formats provide options for the delivery of degrees in a country other than where the awarding university is based.

In this regard, many African students are increasingly accessing higher education offered by UK universities and other tertiary institutions by way of joining overseas campuses, distance learning and online provision through the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, while staying closer to home.

More students are enrolled in joint and dual-degree programmes as well as in double awards curriculum schemes that are offered through fly-in faculty and blended learning models that are mostly attractive to mature working students inclined to improve on their careers.

That aspect is reflected by the rising number of postgraduate students enrolled in distance learning and other flexible blended mechanisms in Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Egypt and Kenya in that order.

Egypt, Nigeria have large cohorts

According to a report, The scale of UK higher education transnational education 2020–21, that was published in November in partnership with the British Council, 11% of the UK’s transnational education students in 2020-21 were in Africa, of whom about 63% were hosted in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa.

With 23,805 students and representing 42.2% of the African cohort, Egypt hosted the largest number of students, while Nigeria, which had the second-largest group with 5,840 students, enjoyed the biggest increase of about 32% during the period under review.

South Africa, that was reported as having 5,455 students representing 9.7% of the African group, showed a 10.2% increase between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years.

Among the top 10 African host countries were Ghana (3,935) Mauritius (3,380), Kenya (2,490), Botswana (1,965), Uganda (1,475), Zimbabwe (1,090) and Zambia (1,065).

According to the report, apart from Zambia, that showed a proportional decrease in the number of students, the rest of the countries in the top 10 had corresponding increases of students in the UK transnational education from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

Anuja Desai, the strategic insight and support officer at UUKi, attributed the emerging need for degrees awarded by British universities to the demand for international qualifications as a way for graduates to gain a competitive advantage in the employment market.

There were indicators that 78% of African students were enrolled in collaborative provision, distance and distributed learning channels, while 22% were registered at overseas partner organisations and overseas branch campuses.

Undergraduate and postgraduate students

In terms of distribution of the UK’s transnational education system across Africa, the report showed that Egypt, alone, accounted for 21,810 undergraduate students, representing 68.6% of undergraduate students in the continent, while Mauritius, with 2,200 undergraduate-level students, had the second-most undergraduate students, but accounted for only 6.9% of the total.

But, at postgraduate level, the students were evenly spread among the top three countries with Nigeria accounting for 20.7%, South Africa for 15.4% and Ghana for 10.3%, while Egypt and Kenya accounted for 8.1% and 7.9% respectively.

Highlighting the success of the Egyptian experience in transnational education, the report noted that the country operates several models, although the dual-degree pattern is the most common.

Private companies are increasingly setting up consortia to host programmes from several foreign universities, while the government is seeking strategic partnerships for 15 new-style state universities it is establishing, according to Joana Westphal, the head of transnational education at UUKi.

At the global level, Egypt is the fifth-largest host of UK transnational education as it has 4.7% of the students. Countries holding higher shares than Egypt in terms of student numbers include China (12%), Malaysia (9.5%), Sri Lanka (7.5%) and Singapore (5.5%).

Global uncertainties may affect transnational education

But, according to ICEF Monitor, an online market intelligence resource for the international education industry, further growth for the transnational education provided by British tertiary institutions should not be taken for granted, given global uncertainties.

Citing the report, ICEF Monitor said the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have stimulated growth of UK’s transnational education as countries looked to enhance the quality of their domestic higher education systems and students were less willing or unable to travel abroad for their studies.

Subsequently, during the lockdowns in 2020-21, the number of students enrolled in transnational education exported by 162 higher education providers in the UK increased by 12.7% in 228 countries and territories worldwide, compared to the previous academic year.

According Westphal, the importance of transnational education has been recognised by the UK government which aims to increase education exports to £35 billion (about US$42.6 billion) per year by 2030.

In Africa, British transnational education grew by 17.3% between 2019 and 2020 and 2020 and 2021, and it was widespread across the continent, albeit in small numbers, in some countries.

Collaborative provisioning of education programmes was reported and available in 31 countries, while students registered at overseas partner organisations were in 38 countries.

But, granted that the COVID-19 pandemic might have contributed to the growth of transnational education in Africa, what is in doubt is whether those academic developments will be sustainable in the long run, or whether they will be reversed by unexpected political or economic events.