African online market ‘interests UK universities’ due to Brexit

A vast market provides opportunities for institutions worried about future outside EU, says head of online platform operating on continent

November 23, 2016
Students at Unicaf University
Unicaf students in Malawi

British universities are showing an increased interest in developing their online provision in Africa since the UK voted to leave the European Union. 

That is the view of Nicos Nicolaou, chief executive officer of Unicaf, which partners with Western universities to offer business and professional degrees across sub-Saharan Africa through its mobile-friendly platform. It forms part of the Edex Educational Excellence Corporation, which runs the University of Nicosia, the largest on Cyprus.

As of now, Unicaf has signed up over 8,000 students for degrees accredited by the University of South Wales, the University of Marymount in Virginia and its own University of Nicosia. It has set up learning centres in a number of African countries, explained Dr Nicolaou, with “a digital library, a computer lab, internet, a generator, so it’s a place for students to get application documents, pay their fees, sit and access our platform – we give them free tablets.

“These students have very limited facilities, no internet, no electricity, no computer [at home]. They have the option of studying fully online or using the learning centres [in countries where they are available] and having some face-to-face sessions approved by partner institutions on a blended-learning model.”  

There are at least two reasons why Dr Nicolaou foresees rapid expansion. One is the sheer size of the market: “Our only constraint is our capacity to process applications in a continent of 1.2 billion people, with half of them below 19. Nigeria [alone] has 1.2 million high school graduates every year and 500,000 university places.” Many would-be students are unable to afford the fees in Western institutions, even if they can obtain visas, but are keen to gain their qualifications at greatly reduced prices.

Because of the sheer numbers applying, Unicaf is able to be highly selective. Many of its students are what Dr Nicolaou describes as “experienced professionals…high-calibre, already working, between 25 and 35, and wanting to improve their standard of living through a job with an international company”.

One striking example is Langson Samala, a former “houseboy” in Malawi who was nicknamed “professor” at school and managed to secure a government-sponsored place at Mzuzu University to study fisheries.

When he graduated with a first in 2015, he said, he was convinced that “an MBA would be the best way of widening my career options”. Through Unicaf and a scholarship offered by a national newspaper, he was able to follow his dream on “a blended degree programme comprising online modules and on-ground support which even without a scholarship makes it around 80 per cent cheaper than a traditional MBA”.  

Along with the intense demand, Dr Nicolaou also points to the strong desire of universities to sign up as partners, not least British institutions made anxious by Brexit.

“They are worried because of all the visa regulations,” he explained. “Fears about declining numbers of EU students mean they are going to need more international students to bridge the financial loss, but they realise they can’t rely on a strategy based on bringing students to the UK.”

Those interested in Africa have only two options: opening branch campuses – an expensive and highly risky strategy, where it is only possible to target a few countries – and going online. Dr Nicolaou reports that he has been approached by “more and more UK universities” wanting to become involved in the project – “at least four in the last month”.

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Print headline: UK sizes up African online market

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