The internationalization of higher education in Africa: Strategies for meeting the development challenges

Prof. Goolam Mohamedbhai Education & Youth Development NEWS & ANALYSIS


Internationalization is now well-embedded in higher education. A survey of 1,336 higher education institutions worldwide, undertaken by the International Association of Universities (IAU) in 2013, revealed that only 8% of them did not have any policy or strategy on internationalization. However, the survey showed that internationalization, its approaches and its impact, vary from region to region. While internationalization is beneficial to higher education in many ways, it can also have negative consequences.

So far, African universities have been grossly disadvantaged by internationalization of higher education in the north. Academic mobility has been greatly skewed; with the exception of South Africa and Egypt, very few foreign students come to study in Africa, while outward student mobility from Africa to the north is among the highest in the world. With the advent of globalization, there has been an invasion of cross-border higher education providers from the north into Africa, many of them of dubious quality. Partnerships between African universities and those in the north, although meant to be mutually beneficial, have generally been more advantageous to the north, which provides and manages the funding. Also, the internationalization strategy now guiding most universities in the north is to become world-class and to improve their competitiveness by being highly-ranked in the world university rankings. This has led them to attract the best brains from the south and to favour north-north rather than north-south collaboration.

In the above-mentioned IAU survey, the institutions were asked to mention the benefits accruing from internationalization. The first three benefits identified by the 114 African institutions that responded were: strengthening research and knowledge production capacity; capacity building through international cooperation; and improving the quality of teaching and learning. Indeed, the research output of African universities, especially in areas of science and technology, is the lowest when compared with other world regions. One of the reasons for this is an acute shortage of research-strong, PhD-qualified academic staff in those crucial areas, which has also an impact on the quality of teaching and learning. There is equally a lack of physical resources in terms of laboratories and equipment. These are seriously handicapping African universities to play a meaningful role in overcoming the continent’s development challenges.

Regional collaboration

There is general acknowledgement that African universities should adopt a different approach to internationalization. They need to contextualize and prioritize their internationalization activities towards development, and since many African countries share the same development challenges, their universities need to pay greater attention to regional collaboration than hitherto, and consider regionalization as a part of internationalization. Most funding agencies and development partners are supportive of regional collaboration among African universities as a means of sharing scarce human, physical and financial resources. At continental level, the African Union and the five sub-regional communities are equally committed to this approach. It is therefore crucial for national policy makers and university leaders to recognise and endorse the policy of regional collaboration among universities.

There have been several initiatives launched aiming at regional collaboration among African universities. One of the earliest of these is the African Economics and Research Consortium (AERC), a network of 27 universities and 15 national economic policy research institutes/centres, established in 1988 to promote collaborative research and postgraduate training in economics so as to overcome the limited capacity in individual member universities. There is also the University Science, Humanities and Engineering Partnerships in Africa (USHEPiA), a partnership of eight universities in seven countries in Southern and Eastern Africa, launched in 1996 at the initiative of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, with funding from several US Foundations and with the objective of promoting collaborative postgraduate training and research in the universities in the member countries. The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), created in 2004 and based in Uganda, is a consortium of 46 universities in 22 countries, mainly in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, having as one of its objectives the training of a critical mass of Master’s and PhD graduates in Agriculture responsive to stakeholder needs and national and regional development goals. The Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), established in 2008 with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, aims to build capacity in science, technology and innovation to stimulate economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it supports regional university networks in the vital areas of water resources, materials science and engineering, biochemistry and bioinformatics, and coastal and marine resources.

More recently, a couple of additional initiatives have emerged that promote regional collaboration, especially in the fields of science and technology, to address some of the major challenges facing the continent. One of them is the Pan African University (PAU) of the African Union, which started operations in 2012. It is supported by several development partners and aims at continental networking for promoting postgraduate training and research in identified priority areas for Africa. The PAU comprises five Institutes, one in each African region, located within an existing African university, each specializing in a different field. Each Institute admits candidates from other African countries and academics from other African countries are encouraged to teach at any Institute on a part-time basis. However, real regional collaboration will take place when, as is proposed, each Institute starts to network with other institutions in its respective field, thus creating a network of networks; this has not yet happened. A similar approach is being adopted by the World Bank’s African Centres of Excellence (ACE) project. Several ACEs have recently been set up in Western and Central Africa and additional ones are being planned for Eastern and Southern Africa. The guiding principle for all ACEs is regional collaboration and partnership among higher education institutions to address key development challenges.

While regional collaboration offers many advantages, getting African institutions to collaborate among themselves can give rise to several challenges, such as continued support towards the collaboration when changes in institutional leadership takes place, additional communication and travel costs, effective management of the initiative and, above all, long-term financial sustainability, especially as almost all the initiatives are financed by donors. This perhaps explains why not all of them have achieved their expected results.

While promoting regionalization, African universities should maintain their existing collaboration with universities in the north, but gear their activities towards their specific development needs. A large number of universities in Europe and North America already have long and fruitful partnerships with African universities, have acquired expertise in the challenges facing Africa and are willing to share them in a collaborative and mutually beneficial way.

New partner countries

Several emerging economic powers – Brazil, China, India and Korea – are showing growing interest in partnering with Africa and assisting in its development. Several of them are already making significant capital investment in Africa. Since most of them have undergone a process of development not dissimilar to that of Africa, they are in an ideal position to understand Africa’s development needs, to share their experiences and to provide appropriate solutions. These countries offer scholarships to Africans – including academic staff in universities – for studying in their respective countries. Experience has shown that all the African scholars return home after their studies and the issue of brain drain does not arise.

In 2013, Brazil launched a major higher education cooperation programme with Portuguese-speaking African countries. The programme involves 20 Brazilian higher education institutions and focuses on teacher training, educational management, e-Learning, institutional capacity building and assessing university performance. Brazil has, within its Ministry of Higher Education, an organization known as CAPES, whose main purpose is to provide scholarships to academic staff for doctoral training. This could prove to be very beneficial to Lusophone African universities. CAPES has also built up expertise on quality assurance of postgraduate programmes and it would be willing to share this with all African universities as the latter expand their postgraduate training activities.

China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) – there are now over 35 of them in Africa and more than 350 of them worldwide – can be an interesting vehicle for Africa-China academic collaboration. The main objective of CIs is to promote the teaching of Chinese language at universities and the appreciation of Chinese culture, but they also help to prepare scholars proceeding to study in China and assist in the research activities undertaken by postgraduate students in China. The vast majority of the CIs are located in universities and are integrated within the university structure. Also, in almost all cases, the university hosting a CI is linked to a university in China. This can greatly facilitate institutional collaboration.

There are several institutional and capacity-building partnerships between India and Africa, especially in the field of ICT in which India has considerable expertise. The Pan-African e-Network project is now well known. Its objective is to connect African countries to India through a satellite and fibre optic network in order to share expertise in a range of fields such as tele-education, telemedicine, resource mapping, etc. The project links several African and Indian universities, super-speciality hospitals and telemedicine and tele-education centres.

A key contributing factor to South Korea’s remarkable development over a relatively short period has been its heavy investment in quality higher education. Korea is sharing its experience with several African countries through its Knowledge Sharing Program. Two areas which were also key to Korea’s development are agricultural development and ICT, both highly relevant to Africa. Again, African universities can learn from Korea’s experience in these specific areas.

It would thus be advantageous for African universities to focus on these new partner countries in their internationalization strategy. This is the strategy that is being adopted by the World Bank-initiated and Africa-led Partnership in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET) project which aims at building capacity in scientific and technical fields for the priority sectors in Africa. One factor that needs to be taken into account by African universities, however, is that collaboration with institutions in these countries is usually covered under government-to-government agreements, and they therefore need to work closely with their national policy makers.

African diaspora

One of the eight priority areas of the Action Plan emanating from the Dakar 2015 African Higher Education Summit is to mobilize diaspora and engage them in transforming Africa’s higher education sector. The Plan specifically proposes a programme that sponsors 1,000 scholars in the African diaspora every year, for 10 years, to African universities for collaboration in research, curriculum development and graduate student teaching and mentoring.
There is no doubt that Africa’s academic diaspora represent a huge potential to be tapped. While they already contribute significantly to the economy of their country of origin through remittances, given the opportunity, they would also assist in reforming higher education in Africa. The advantage of engaging the diaspora is that they are aware of the development challenges of Africa. Previous attempts at encouraging them to return to Africa have not been successful. The better approach is to garner their support from their adopted country of residence and get them to assist African institutions through short attachments, thus converting ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain circulation’. Many of them already have informal engagements with fellow academics or institutions in African universities, but this needs to be formalized. This is the guiding principle behind the Carnegie-funded African Diaspora Fellowship Program, which provides fellowships to African diaspora academics in North America. The Program was started in 2013 and so far some 110 fellows, mostly from the US, have been funded for stays of about two months on average at over 80 universities in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

It is essential therefore for African universities to include engagement of the academic diaspora in their internationalization strategy or policy. However, implementing such a strategy or policy poses challenges. Few countries have established a database of their professional diaspora and, even if they have, this does not distinguish academics who would be willing to assist in higher education. Ethiopia, for example, has created a Diaspora Engagement Affairs Directorate General under its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and this is commendable. But many African academic diaspora would be willing to assist any African university in their area of expertise, not necessarily those in their country of origin. Indeed, for various reasons, some may well prefer to serve in a country other than their own. It might therefore be more appropriate to create a continental database of African diaspora academics willing to assist African higher education development. The most appropriate organization to do that would be the Association of African Universities, which could then also coordinate requests for diaspora assistance from its member universities.


Internationalization can be a powerful tool in the advancement of higher education. In Africa, higher education institutions should use internationalization to empower them to contribute meaningfully to the development of their countries and the continent. Among the options that have great potential in this regard are regional collaboration, which is limited at present, partnerships with institutions in the newly-emerging economies and engaging the African academic diaspora.

One internationalization option that African universities should be wary of is trying to be ranked under the global university rankings, which use criteria that are not appropriate for their particular systems. Any effort to be globally ranked would not only lead to a waste of resources but, more importantly, would divert the institutions from their important development role.

Written by

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai did his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester, UK, and his postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley. He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius from 1995 to 2005. He was also Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities, President of the International Association of Universities, and a member and Vice-Chair of the governing Council of the United Nations University. He is the recipient of several honorary doctorates and awards, including the 2014 GUNI-Africa and AfriQAN Distinguished Service to Quality Assurance in Higher Education in Africa Award.