ANALYSIS: How can China help improve higher education in Africa?

Tertiary education in Africa is fraught with problems and Chinese involvement could help it develop at multiple levels.


China’s relationship with Africa is usually viewed through the relatively narrow lens of infrastructure, construction, energy, and mining. However, Sino-African relations have the potential to be multifaceted. Higher education is one sector that would benefit significantly from greater cross-fertilisation between China and Africa.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the enrolment rate in 2013 was 77% for primary, 34% for secondary, but only 9% for higher education. This, coupled with the fact that by 2030, the number of youth in Africa will have increased by 42%, points to an urgent need to address higher education on the continent.

However, higher education in Africa is fraught with challenges, including limited financial and human resources and a lack of industrial linkages causing education to be out of sync with the needs of the economy. Africa could benefit from China’s involvement at multiple levels.

Technical education

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in African countries is limited by a lack of industrial support. According to research conducted by the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence, many TVET institutes possess equipment, trainers, and curricula that are not up to industrial and international standards. Consequently, TVET graduates struggle to gain recognition by employers.

To bridge these gaps, African TVET institutions could partner with Chinese companies in Africa. For instance, Chinese firms could be incentivised to invest equipment, technology and human resources in technical training institutes.

Alternatively, they could be invited to jointly develop curricula and provide internships to TVET institutes. Africa’s technical education could thus benefit from industrial linkages with and technology transfers from Africa’s Chinese private sector.

University education

In the case of tertiary education, Chinese students could be a major contributor to Africa’s international student base. China is the largest exporter of students globally.

At the end of 2014, there were 1.7m Chinese students studying overseas. Chinese students abroad have a substantial economic impact on their host institutions.

For example, in 2012–13, Chinese students in New Zealand accounted for nearly one-third of tuition fee income, of which 50% was attributed to university students. Currently, African countries remain unexplored as higher education destinations.

With over 2,000 Chinese companies operating in Africa, China has the scope to be an important source of corporate partnerships for African universities. In this context, seeking partnerships with Chinese companies could be a great way for African universities to expand their private sector ties.

A pioneer in this approach is the African Leadership University (ALU), which has pan-African ambitions to provide world-class, low-cost tertiary education through a network of 25 campuses. ALU has been engaging Chinese students and corporates since 2015 to forge long-term relationships.

In conclusion, China could play an important role in the development of Africa’s higher education sector, as an investor, an industrial partner, or a market for students. African governments and institutes should think strategically about how to engage Chinese stakeholders and leverage these relationships to their fullest potential.

Isaac Fokuo is co-founder of the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence and a 2014 Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.

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