Where will Africa’s students study abroad in post-COVID19 times?

It’s that time of the year when university students move around the world in pursuit of their dreams, including over a quarter of a million African students. But 2020/2021 could be very different because of COVID19.

Students are the world’s future leaders. Where students choose to study can have a profound impact on their future outlook, from what job they have to where they live. This is particularly true for African students, who have been the fastest growing student demographic in the world in recent years, in line with Africa’s youthful demographic and the rise of the middle-class. Africa’s overseas students could be a key driving force of development across the African continent in years to come.

But can this growth be maintained in a world still dealing with COVID19? The US government recently backed down from its policy to revoke visas of international students who will attend only online university classes for the new 2020/2021 year. And while China has managed the COVID19 crisis domestically much better than the US, China is only slowly giving new visas to international students – encouraging many to defer or do studies online. Will this change? Will other popular destination countries open up for Africans? And if not, which students from which African countries could be most affected?

That’s why, as part of our ongoing infographic series, we decided to take a deep dive into African country-level data for the US, France, UK and for China – from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and collated by the Center for Srategic International Studies (CSIS), and – for the first time – use these to forecast the 2021 trends that would have been occurring if there was no COVID19, as well as put them in context by comparing them to other international cohorts of students.

The headline results have already been reported by South Africa’s The Mail and Guardian in this article, exploring one of our key findings that China is now the primary destination country for students studying abroad from 24 African countries.

But what else does the data reveal? The infographics below set out the staggering results:


But, why does this matter? Why should African leaders and citizens be interested in these results? Should international development practitioners be interested in these figures?

There are at least four reasons to care about these results, especially in post-COVID19 times, where we have an opportunity to rethink and drive the future of education, as mentioned in a recent UNESCO discussion.

First, university education is important both in terms of quantity and quality. According to UNESCO, across Africa, just over 12% of the population get a tertiary education – well below the global average of 32%. While local provision of university and other vocational education is important, international provision is also helpful – especially through scholarships. This difference could be exacerbated post-COVID19. The UN is clear that the digital divide does not just exist at primary or secondary level – it also exists at tertiary level. Should online classes become the choice for universities around the world, this will disproportionately impact young Africans, who suffer disproportionately from a lack of affordable internet access. This is therefore an issue that the African Union, and it’s Youth Envoy Aya Chebbi, should be taking up at a high level with development partners, to prioritise African access to in-person international courses.

Second, the incentive to study at university level is crucial. China has recently started to open up its work permit laws for post-graduates, enabling some African students to choose to stay in China to live and work. In other countries explored above, however, such as the UK and France, making such conversions is becoming increasingly challenging. If China continues to open up post-COVID19, we can therefore expect larger amounts of trade, remittances, and investment into Africa from China, driven by Africans, in addition to Chinese partners. This is why we work on platforms for African business leaders to engage with China, so that these trends can translate into as much poverty reduction and sustainable development as possible.

Third, as the number of African students studying in China has increased, we’ve also seen a gradual increase in the number African government officials and business leaders with exposure and ties to China. Notable examples are Former President of Ethiopia from 2013-2018, Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, who studied at BCLU and Peking University; Joseph Kabila, former President of DRC from 2010-2019 who studied for 6 months at China’s National Defence University; and the former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s daughter Bona Mugabe who graduated from Hong Kong University. A study by Chinese Professor Li Anshan found that by 2005, 8 former recipients of Chinese Government scholarships were holding ministerial positions in their home countries, 8 were serving as Ambassadors or consuls to China and 6 were working as secretaries or advisors to their president. This is important because as Africa’s relationship with China becomes more interconnected, it is essential to have Government ministers and civil servants that understand how to work with and ultimately negotiate with China. As a consultancy that works with African governments, our assessment is there is insufficient understanding across the continent at the moment, which is why we are often commissioned to focus on Africa-China cooperation. However, in the future, and again if these trends are able to continue post-COVID19, we can expect stronger bridges with China to be built by the rising numbers of future African leaders studying here.

Finally, in a post-COVID19 world, if more Africans continue to study more in China relative to  other countries, this could extend China’s influence. As an example, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the UK and France hosted numerous African scholars and elites, many of whom eventually drove the push for self-determination and independence across the continent, while at the same time utilising French and British underlying legal and cultural structures. The experience that African students get in China may in future translate into a better understanding of China’s society and structures and definitive views of China’s domestic and foreign policies that may or may not be helpful for China’s future global engagement, and the engagement of other development partners.

At Development Reimagined, we work with many different partners to explore the China- Africa relationship and how it can be improved to deliver more poverty reduction and sustainable development in the future. For more information about how DR can support you with bespoke insights, advice and cutting-edge research, and if your institution is interested in exploring the above data, contact us at: clients@developmentreimagined.com. 

*Infographics produced by Rosie Wigmore

Photo Credit: NESA by Makers on Unsplash

September 2020

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