Get it while it’s hot: Marguerite Dennis urges UK institutions to try a slice of African ‘pie’

The continent’s burgeoning economies could prove a major source of future student recruitment, says Marguerite Dennis

April 4, 2013

Consider the following: there are about a billion people in Africa, and the continent has 20 per cent of the world’s land and 15 per cent of the world’s population. Around 70 per cent of the population own a mobile phone.

Africa had six of the world’s fastest-growing economies between 2001 and 2010. Direct foreign investment in Africa has increased by 50 per cent since 2005. From 2003 to 2011, Chinese annual investment in Africa increased from $100 million (£66 million) to $12 billion. The Chinese government has funded 40,000 private sector jobs, 20,000 scholarships and 29 Confucius Institutes in 22 African countries.

A 2012 Goldman Sachs report, titled Africa’s Turn, compared business opportunities in Africa today with those of China in the early 1990s. Marriott will open 50 hotels in Africa by 2020. Last year in Nairobi, IBM opened its 12th research lab, while Amazon’s sales of its Kindle in Africa increased 10-fold.

Google is one of the most significant private sector companies in Africa. Its internet search and email services are transforming information and communications. The company is also trying to help African governments to digitise information and make it freely available.

Online Africa is developing faster than offline. News reports suggest that undersea cables reaching Africa on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts, coupled with innovations from mobile phone providers, have increased internet speeds and reduced prices.

If so many global companies are investing in Africa, why should not the same hold for colleges and universities?

They are beginning to. Australia, for example, has launched an expanded Australia-Africa Universities Network, a consortium of 17 Australian universities and 30 African universities. The network will link University of Sydney experts on African issues with policymakers, non-governmental organisations and the business community. The objective is to establish Sydney as the leading institution in Australia for engagement and expansion in Africa. China, meanwhile, will implement the China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Program between Chinese and African colleges and universities and research scholars.

Africa has more academics with a foreign degree and more graduates with study-abroad experience than any other region of the world

And there is a history of international collaboration with African students and scholars. According to one recent news report, Africa has more academics with a foreign degree and more graduates with study-abroad experience than any other region of the world.

Developing an African international recruitment plan is taking the long view of potential future student enrolment. It is critical for institutions of higher education to diversify their international student base and get ahead of new economic and educational trends.

I am not suggesting that students from Africa are about to enrol immediately in large numbers. Even for those families who can afford an education overseas, there are visa restraints to consider.

I am suggesting, however, that admissions deans should begin to look at Africa as a potential source of new student recruits and develop an outreach programme for African students. Africa will, in the near future, become one of the world’s “hot spots” for student recruitment.

Universities should use academic expertise to guide them on the political and economic factors they will need to consider. IT staff should collaborate with admissions staff on the technology with which to reach potential recruits.

Grant writers should explore funding in the health sciences and health administration, and graduate school deans should seek collaboration and potential combined degree programmes with African colleges and universities.

For 15 years, I helped to manage the admissions and recruitment office of a US branch campus in Dakar, Senegal. We enrolled students from 40 African countries and they were among the best we educated, and they contributed a great deal to the diversity and internationalisation of the campus.

As African students begin to make up a bigger share of the global enrolment “pie”, and as the continent’s universities carve out significant international academic and research collaborations, UK universities should seize the opportunities.

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