Africa ‘must embrace online learning’ to meet demand for degrees

‘Portfolio’ academics undertaking teaching for a range of platforms are playing an increasingly important role

August 20, 2017
Africans using a laptop
Source: Getty

After more than a decade of working in UK higher education – and growing increasingly exasperated by its strained relationship with the Home Office over the importance of international students – Kevin Andrews decided to leave.

“I was completely disenchanted with UK higher education. I thought: ‘I’m going to go off and do something a bit more interesting’,” said Dr Andrews, who is now vice-chancellor of Unicaf University, an institution that is working to meet the demand for degrees on the African continent.

Unicaf delivers courses to students in Africa in two ways: by partnering with existing universities to deliver their courses online and, increasingly, in regional learning centres; and through Unicaf University, which is now an accredited degree provider with a campus in Malawi, and one opening soon in Zambia.

Through this combination of online and face-to-face teaching, Unicaf now has 11,000 students, a figure it hopes to increase to 60,000 by 2021.

There is a “crisis of capacity” on the African continent, Dr Andrews said, pointing out that half the population is under 19 – just one of the factors contributing to the spiralling demand for higher education.

“To meet that demand,” he said, “Africa would need to build 10 universities a week, [with] each [one enrolling] 10,000 students every week for the next 12 years.” This simply isn’t going to happen.

“I am not saying that all bricks-and-mortar institutions need to be closed, but it is impossible for African governments to build enough to [educate the population] in the traditional way,” said Dr Andrews, who was a lecturer at Bournemouth University for 13 years, leaving in 2006. “They have to think about innovations, to think about online as part of the solution.”

Among Unicaf’s current university partners is the University of South Wales, which offers a range of degrees in business, education, psychology, public health, and law on the platform.

Helen Langton, deputy vice-chancellor at USW, said that the institution now has about 2,500 students registering through the partnership. All students are charged the same as on-campus international students, but in reality about 80 per cent of this is covered by scholarships from Unicaf.

One of the biggest challenges, Professor Langton said, is being accepted as “real” by prospective students.

“I think that it’s an issue because the vast majority of our students are from Africa and they are used to scams – Nigeria in particular,” she said. “It looks too good to be true.”

Despite his own disillusionment with UK higher education, Dr Andrews is still looking for more partner institutions in the UK. The “gold standard” reputation of UK universities remains an attractive selling point.

However, as Unicaf University develops its own brand, he believes that there will be less need for these collaborations. His university is recruiting tutors from a variety of pools, including UK university staff recently made redundant, and a new kind of “portfolio” academic who undertakes some online teaching for a range of web-based learning platforms.

“Our data show that…when students realise that Unicaf is real and that the vast majority of people who are running it are from the UK originally, they are quite happy to go with that brand,” Dr Andrews said.

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