Monash University in Melbourne is believed to be the first university to begin developing offshore education programmes that will be offered across the entire region of southern Africa.
University officials have held discussions with education ministers from the 14 member countries of the Southern African Development Community and are preparing detailed briefs for approval.
The first programme is expected to be in place by the middle of next year, while a full branch campus of Monash will be operating, probably in Johannesburg, by 2000. This will be followed by the establishment of a range of satellite bases in the other countries in the region.
Monash vice-chancellor David Robinson said the aim was to have a "distributed network" of education programmes and activities, delivered in collaboration with local education providers and established universities.
Professor Robinson met SADC education ministers in Paris prior to the Unesco conference on higher education last month. He said Monash's "concept plan" had been warmly received and followed discussions between governments in the region and the executive director of the university's international programmes, Ian Porter.
Mr Porter, a former Australian high commissioner to South Africa, said southern Africa would now play a key role in the economic, political, technological and cultural development of the African continent.
Monash is investigating registration requirements as a foreign education provider within the various nations, focusing initially on South Africa, where the government has drafted a Private Higher Education Institutions Act similar to one in place in Malaysia.
Earlier this year, Monash became the first foreign university to gain a licence from the Malaysian government to set up a branch campus in Kuala Lumpur. The campus opened in July with 450 students and 2,000 are expected to be enrolled by November next year.
Professor Robinson said no other foreign universities operating within the SADC countries had adopted a strategic approach to education provision as broad as the Monash initiative.
"We want to identify an activity in each country that would be to their benefit: it could be an access programme in Mozambique, or a distance-education portfolio in Zimbabwe, where there is an excellent but small university and a large well-qualified secondary school population," he said.
"We are looking at where we can make a contribution: bridging courses, for example, to help students who might not otherwise get access to university - a whole portfolio of programmes we could do in a distributed way but headed by the one organisation," Robinson said.
African students will pay fees on a cost-recovery basis but will be offered bursaries and scholarships so that at least some of their costs can be met.