African leader wants end to 'slave trade' in education

Head of universities group criticises self-interest of 'globalising' institutions. Phil Baty writes

March 1, 2012

Africa is suffering a "slave trade in education", the secretary general of the Association of African Universities told an international conference last week.

Olugbemiro Jegede, the founding vice-chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, told delegates attending the Association of International Education Administrators' conference in Washington DC that universities in wealthy nations intent on ramping up commercial international activities must not "exploit inadequacies" in developing countries.

At the beginning of his presentation at a session on rethinking internationalisation, Dr Jegede told delegates that he would try not to use "very strong words", but added that if he did, he would be "speaking from the heart".

Dr Jegede said: "Internationalisation is not about conquest...It is not about flouting national rules and regulations - because we know many universities outside of Africa who just walk into Africa and start flouting rules and regulations.

"This has always been the case. Africa has only supplied raw materials. First was the slave trade...Now we are being called upon to supply the brains to other parts of the world, and this is what I call 'the slave trade in education'."

The session was chaired by Eva Egron-Polak, secretary general of the International Association of Universities, which has been working with other national higher education representative bodies in an "ad hoc expert group" to try to "reconceptualise internationalisation as a meaningful concept" amid concerns that the commercial activities of universities can come into conflict with their academic values.

She said: "Maybe we need to be using shocking words like [those used by Dr Jegede] to get attention."

Dr Jegede said universities' international activities should be fully reciprocal and "mutually defined".

"We must redefine internationalisation...We must promote true universalisation of knowledge. Our associations must become clearing houses and monitor international activity, and we must vet and check the status of institutions.

"We need to discourage financial exploitation of students and protect the vulnerable."

Madeleine Green, a higher education consultant and senior fellow at the International Association of Universities, said: "When the IAU asked about perceived risks in international higher education, the Europeans and the North Americans said either [that there were] none or they skipped the question - they didn't get it. Whereas in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, [respondents cited] brain drain, commercialisation, the loss of linguistic and cultural identity."

Dr Green said that there had been an "explosion" of international higher education as a business.

"Internationalisation is pushing institutions, leaders - all of us involved in higher education - to look at some fundamental ethical issues about this tension between the need to survive, the need to be competitive and to generate revenue, and to hold dear to academic values," she concluded.

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