Why Africa should be the next focus for UK global higher education drive

Big opportunities lie ahead for young South Africans. Nic Bothma/EPA

Historical prestige is not the only reason why British universities do well at attracting international students – but it helps. Victorian antecedents hint at continuity and esteem. Strong teaching, good infrastructure and the English language also help to make UK universities a global educational and economic success story.

British universities benefit from another 19th century legacy. Don’t mention the “c” word, but colonialism (and the Commonwealth) means Britain shares a global heritage with many countries. This brings opportunities and, I would argue, obligations to engage positively – and not just by attracting fee-paying students.

When Band Aid 30 released a version of the 1980s song Do They Know It’s Christmas? last month, despite a change of words (extolling us to “heal the world” as well as “feed” it) there was a telling backlash. The sentiment of the song might be almost identical, but Africa itself has changed immeasurably. The attitudes of people elsewhere need to catch up. It is time to move away from the short-term Band Aid view of African victimhood and towards partnerships with long-lasting benefits on all sides. The next 100 years will be the African century. I see universities playing a key role.

Looking beyond Asia

Until now, UK universities have focused on the emerging economies of Asia, with great success. This has brought Asian students to the UK in large numbers. It has also prompted British universities to set up new campuses overseas and initiate agreements with in-country institutions – the model known as transnational education.

My own university, Reading, is investing in a new Malaysia campus, which opens next year, and has agreements with several Chinese institutions. But these are not our only overseas ventures. Last month I visited South Africa, where Reading’s Henley Business School Africa is established in Johannesburg.

Transnational education is on the rise. In November, the Higher Education Funding Council for England reported on the increasing importance of overseas campuses and partnerships in sustaining the growth of UK universities. The Department for Business and Industry has also calculated that the sector is worth nearly half a billion pounds annually.

Currently, South Africa is still somewhat off the radar of many UK universities. But some international providers, such as Australia’s Monash University, are already well embedded and seeing the extraordinary results. I am proud that my institution’s business school is among them.

There is much promise but more to do if South Africa is to become an emerging economic powerhouse, raising living standards for millions of its people in the process. Universities in the country already play a key role, not only in training and education, but in research and driving the economy through innovation.

South Africa’s to-do list

Looking at South Africa, then, some of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the years ahead are right on the country’s doorstep, right now. The emerging threats of sluggish growth, disease, climate change, and insecurity of food supply are all global problems. South Africa has an opportunity to confront these issues head-on.

Given the strong historical ties to Britain, South African students might consider coming to UK universities to supplement their in-country education, before returning to lead change.

Such transnational education can bring additional benefits for UK-based students too. As graduate employers increasingly look to attract a workforce with “global skills”, providing opportunities for study and travel in both directions becomes more important. Transnational campuses in English-speaking countries could bring new opportunities for more adventurous anglophone undergraduates, in subjects beyond those that traditionally involve a year abroad.

Of course, this should not be another excuse for the UK education system to maintain its woeful record on languages. In the long run we have to unshackle future generations from the British burden of mono-lingualism.

Two-way traffic

The UK government has already rightly shifted its global focus away from aid and towards establishing international trading relationships. Exporting education – one of Britain’s best products – is at the top of the agenda.

The UK should, of course, remain an importer of students, as it is now. But in a globalised economy, and for a country striving to be more outward-looking, the traffic needs to be two-way. The internationalisation of our higher education system must be about more than the bottom line. It should be about developing closer international ties, gaining global influence, and helping the UK to project soft power.

Universities in the UK tend to be bastions of liberal idealism, where one may still occasionally catch a whiff of post-colonial guilt. We must get over this. Respect and an understanding of context are important, but must be matched with a genuine desire for partnerships that lead to mutual advantage.