Africa needs education, not exploitation

For-profit operators are needed to help feed the continent’s hunger for degrees but regulation is key

October 22, 2015
University of the Witwatersrand students protesting
Source: Alamy

A number of things struck me as I drove the 45 minutes or so from the hotel district of Sandton to Soweto during a visit to Johannesburg earlier this year.

One is that Soweto is vast, and only small areas could be classed as slums – it consists mainly of well-maintained, if boxy, brick houses, each with a solar panel on the roof.

But before you get to Soweto, you pass through a lot of semi-rural scrubland that offers some clues about why the former South Western Townships were here in the first place.

Johannesburg is a city built on gold. The visible clues include yellowing hills of earth that has been chemically filtered to extract flecks of precious metal, and the eucalyptus trees, with their pale trunks and bluish leaves, which are everywhere but are not African at all.

The gum trees were introduced by Australian gold prospectors who needed a fast-growing, rock-solid timber to hold up the roofs of tunnels deep under the ground.

But while these miners brought trees with them, both the labour they used and the gold that made them rich were African through and through.

Today, soaring global demand for other minerals has led to mining giants redoubling efforts on African soil. But there is another area of big business that is advertised on the drive to Soweto. Prominent among the odd mix of goods and services offered on roadside hoardings (plastic surgery, funerals, particularly lurid tabloid newspapers) is private higher education.

As is the case for many internationally mobile students who come to study in the US, the UK or Australia, the hoardings tend to focus on business courses and MBAs.

- View the best universities in Africa 2016

This, no doubt, is driven by demand, and by the fact that the broad public good offered by less obviously cashable disciplines isn’t of interest to the for-profit providers responsible (even in the UK, the private providers tend to cherry-pick law and business).

But it’s no good simply raging against the for-profit model, as it clearly has a part to play in a continent with far more demand for higher education than can be met without it.

What matters is quality and relevance, and a guarantee (so far as one can be achieved) that students are being helped to improve their lives rather than exploited.

Sensitivity to this danger is illustrated by the tuition-fee protests in South Africa this week, which have forced several of the country’s largest public universities to suspend lectures.

The point was emphasised at the Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit in Johannesburg in July, in the context of foreign investors seeing African students as a new seam of gold to be profited from.

In our cover feature, we look in detail at the issue of for-profit higher education in the continent to assess whether the right balance is being struck.

It’s a vital question, because as Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, told the THE summit, education must play a central role in the development agenda if Africa is ever to advance as the world hopes it will.

Get the balance wrong, and we end up with further exploitation, because as another of the speakers at our summit observed: “the poor are willing to pay for bad education.” And that’s a warning that applies to the US, and the nascent for-profit sector in the UK, too.

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Reader's comments (2)

Not all of the foreign education providers in South Africa are new or there to exploit a country and continent as your editorial (“Of needs, means and motives”) might suggest. Henley Business School, University of Reading, has had a physical presence in South Africa since 1990 (probably the UK’s oldest off-shore university campus). Each year we admit nearly 300 students to MBA programmes and more to Masters degrees and also run a significant amount of Executive Education. Our students principally come from South Africa but also from other parts of Africa and come for the sort of high quality, international education – with deep local contextualisation – that we offer. We are proud of the fact that our last MBA intake was 71% black (as defined by the South Africa Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment criteria – one of the closest to the national distribution of any business school in South Africa) and is 43% female. Yes, we run a surplus, as should any self-respecting institution, but this is to reinvest in our facilities and staff, to support design innovation and quality improvement for our corporate clients and to provide very significant financial and academic support for our current and future students. We run an aggressive social entrepreneurship programme that has helped over 200 NGOs and produces local internships, scholarships and bursaries, conservatively providing over £2m worth of contribution. We have launched the ‘family friendly’ MBA process to help to help families cope with the burden of study in or challenging socio-economic conditions. All staff are required to fast-track their development and study each year. We subsidise this, be it on MBA, coaching, or other management development programmes. As your editorial says, Africa is hungry for quality education. But don’t suggest that Africans are undiscerning. That would be reflecting a post-colonial myopia and unreconstructed insularity. They recognise quality and commitment and quickly learn to shun the unscrupulous. Our world ranking and international accreditations may indicate excellence, but what matters is our history of engagement, the authenticity of our vision and the quality of our faculty. As a long-standing part of the South African higher education system, we are proud to be different and proud of the benefit we provide to the country and region. John Board, Dean, Henley Business School Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director, Henley Business School, Africa Vincenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement), University of Reading
Thanks for this response. Absolutely not suggesting that all foreign investment is bad, or all for-profit higher education in Africa is exploitative. On the contrary, I do explicitly make the point that this is likely to remain a vital part of the mix if we are to grow capacity at the rate required. But we must also be alive to the risks. It may indeed be easy to fall into the trap of delivering patronising commentary from afar - or, as you put it, of suffering from post-colonial myopia - but it's equally easy to use an accusation of post-colonial myopia to gloss over the fact that there are issues we need to be alive to here. In fact, the concern about external investment in for-profit HE, and in particular the fear that in developing economies "the poor are often willing to pay for poor education" was expressed with great concern by African vice-chancellors and senior academics and development experts at the THE Africa Universities Summit this summer. So completely agree there's lots of good being done by very reputable institutions (of which Henley Business School is no doubt one), but it would be naive to suggest that there weren't real issues to be dealt with too. In my opinion... John