As a schoolboy in 1980s Uganda, I couldn’t help but notice how much the political turmoil of the time affected us in the classroom.
Teaching time was often limited by the curfews imposed by the government after the military coups that followed the fall of dictator Idi Amin. But this unrest also gave an urgency to our need for education; we were all extremely driven, and a culture of self-directed and shared learning evolved.
On those all too frequent occasions when the teacher didn’t arrive, we would organise ourselves into study groups. My brother and I – sons of employees of non-governmental organisations – were always in demand for practising English, which was taught from primary school level.
Pupils had to seize the chance to study, not least because completing homework in the evening was often impossible on account of the frequent power cuts and rampant energy theft. The ultimate ambition for most was to go to Uganda’s sole university, Makerere; a very few dreamed of going to the UK on a government or Chevening scholarship.
Thirty years on, I went back to Uganda this summer. Many things had changed. The single television channel that only began broadcasting at 6pm has been replaced by multiple round-the-clock options. Similarly, Makerere has been joined by another eight universities. And local ambitions extend beyond merely studying in the UK. The US, Europe and, increasingly, the Far East are potential destinations.
The small number of North Korean military staff I remember have been replaced by significant numbers of Chinese people living and working in local communities, bringing with them their work ethic, entrepreneurialism and access to cheaper goods and higher living standards. Accordingly, there’s been a shift to seeing China as the luxury brand of choice. It is a nation synonymous with financial muscle, where there appears to be no limit to the possibilities of development.
While English remains widely spoken, the language of ambition is now Mandarin Chinese. The familiarity of Chinese faces in Ugandan society can make the British Council look rather detached by comparison: a secure, fenced and remote outpost administered through locally recruited staff, rather than Brits. It makes the possibility of British education seem similarly distant.
In addition, the image of the West in Uganda has become more mixed, uncertain and complicated in recent decades. The route into Western higher education is cluttered by a history of both development aid and exploitation, and while it still promises progress, it also comes with question marks about how welcome international students might be.
As underlined by Theresa May’s recent trip to sub-Saharan Africa, this continent will matter more than ever to the UK post-Brexit. But the UK needs to make itself new again in the eyes of Africans. It must demonstrate how a British university education offers its graduates more, in terms of experience, quality and employability, than they might receive elsewhere. To this end, British universities need to think beyond sales and embrace a broader concept of marketing. African students want to hear and speak to those that deliver the experience, not those that just sell the experience. So academics need to have more influence and involvement in student recruitment from Africa: in defining the whole educational experience that is being sold, and accepting accountability for its delivery.
The UK is still seen with a kind of affection by many Africans, but this alone is not enough, and it will wane over generations. Increasingly, the Chinese university offering includes choice, quality and the opportunity to integrate into a familiar Chinese-heavy community when students return to Africa. Western universities need to think more about how to offer support to their own alumni when they return home, and how to build an ongoing sense of belonging through alumni services and in-country networks and presence.
Most international students from the developing world are no longer pursuing a dream of escape. They want primarily to attain the self-development that will let them make a difference in their home countries. Western universities need to grasp this quickly, and reposition themselves as destinations more rooted in overseas students’ waking reality.
Zahir Irani is dean of the University of Bradford’s Faculty of Management, Law and Social Sciences.