China’s Influence in Africa: A Rising Tide

Chinese investment across the continent yields results in higher education.
Photo: Olivia Henry/Unsplash

Most news about China in the field of international education tends to be about outbound students. But in 2014, China quietly surpassed the United Kingdom and the United States as a top destination for international students from Africa—and it continues to draw increasing numbers of students from the continent.

This eclipse was no overnight development. Rather, it is an outgrowth of China’s major diplomatic outreach and investment in Africa over the past 2 decades. As China’s influence on higher education in Africa grows by leaps and bounds, this development poses major long-term implications for higher education on the African continent, in China, and throughout the world.

The Roots of Growth

China’s place as a top destination for African tertiary international students is the product of a concerted effort. A multipronged approach actively promotes Chinese culture and language diffusion throughout the African continent, supports African national higher education efforts, and fosters diverse and dynamic intergovernmental and interinstitution tertiary efforts.

In 2000, a newly formed Forum on China– Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) sought to establish a framework for China to coordinate its multiple diplomatic relationships with African nations. As of 2017, the forum includes every African nation.

Postsecondary education has emerged as one focal point of the organization’s agenda at a time when many African countries are more focused on primary and secondary educational efforts. The higher education initiatives that FOCAC supports span a wide range of areas, including academic exchanges, government scholarships, cooperative higher education and research projects, technical and vocational training, distance education, language instruction, mutual recognition of academic qualifications, and more, noted Mini Gu, a quality assurance specialist at World Education Services (WES) in a 2017 analysis.

Simultaneously, the United States’s influence on African students is receding, according to many experts.

“There is a huge shift taking place here,” says Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust, coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, and author of the recently published article, “Research Universities – Lessons for Africa from China.”

“The United States is not seen as doing anything in Africa, while China is spending billions of dollars building infrastructure and actual universities in Sudan,” he says. In November 2018, for example, China handed over a $41 million, Chinese-funded, state-of-the-art library located in the University of Dar es Salaam to the Tanzanian government.

A Leading Destination Market

The rising tide of inbound African students at Chinese institutions comes as many African countries’ higher education sectors lack the capacity to accommodate their youth bulges. Student mobility numbers through 2015 show a steady rise in enrollment of African students in Chinese higher education institutions, from just under 2,000 in 2003 to almost 50,000 in 2015, based on figures released by China’s Ministry of Education.

While some observers question whether these numbers can be independently verified, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) statistics point to a similar trend. France is the top destination for African students studying abroad, hosting just over 95,000 students in 2014; the United States and the United Kingdom both hosted around 40,000 African students the same year. According to UNESCO data and an analysis by Michigan State University doctoral student Victoria Breeze, China’s almost 50,000 enrolled African students were enough to take the number two spot behind France.

Chart of African students studying in China

Scholarships play a big role in the influx of African students in China. Between 2010 and 2014, a reported 33,866 Chinese government scholarships were distributed to African students through FOCAC, says Gu at WES. In 2015, at the sixth FOCAC ministerial conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans to further increase aid to postsecondary African students.

The plan encompasses 30,000 additional scholarships, including 2,000 postgraduate and doctoral slots at top Chinese institutions, and short-term sponsorships for 200 African scholars and 500 African youths to visit China. At the 2018 FOCAC conference, China committed to providing African students with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 opportunities for seminars and workshops to train more professionals in different disciplines.

Quality and Reach

Some experts find it difficult to measure the quality of the education that African students receive in China. However, Kenneth King, professor emeritus of international and comparative education at the University of Edinburgh and former director of its Centre of African Studies, says that according to the more than 200 interviews he conducted with African students and educators for a 2013 book, China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training, African students indicated that they are generally satisfied with the quality and nature of their experiences at Chinese higher education institutions.

“African students I spoke to were positive about their exposure to China and to the Chinese culture of learning and hard work,” King says. “They all say the greatest influence gained from China is to take hard work seriously. Most African students who returned had their Chinese educations accredited in the countries that they returned to—there hasn’t been a feeling that these are second-rate degrees.” 

China’s higher education sector could become increasingly competitive, given steadily rising rankings for many Chinese institutions, the powerful legacy that mobility patterns can create, and students’ hopes of landing a job in, or interacting with, China’s rapidly expanding economic presence on the African continent.

“Chinese higher education institutions are serious competitors for international students,” says King, noting that most African students in China are self-funded, despite the growth in scholarships.

However, many international educators say that for a large number of African students, Western institutions with longer lineages and higher scholastic rankings remain the first choice.

“I think Anglo-European higher education institutions (HEIs) have been doing well in their partnerships with Africa,” says Yue Ma, head and senior lecturer of Chinese at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “Comparatively, Chinese HEIs are new here and less experienced. Many African students, like some Chinese students, eye Western HEIs as more attractive destinations for their postgraduate studies than Chinese ones. In fact, more competitive students would consider opportunities in Anglo-European HEIs as their priorities.”

Educational and Economic Exchange

To create a robust presence within African higher education institutions, China established a network of Confucius Institutes. The Confucius Institutes, which China operates in other countries around the world, are nonprofit public education organizations affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Their stated goals are to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.

Ernest Aryeetey, former vice chancellor of University of Ghana and now secretary general of the African Research Universities Alliance, says that African institutions’ experiences with Confucius Institutes can vary by how each director manages the relationship.

“I’ve seen different experiences,” Aryeetey says. “Some African universities take what they want from the collaborations, while in other places the Confucius Institute determines what is done. If you don’t have a good partner, you may not get much out of the partnership.”

China’s increasing draw for African students also reflects its growing economic presence and influence across Africa itself. China is an outsized economic player on the continent, with large economic investments including extraction and infrastructure projects. A combination of private Chinese investments, along with government loans and aid—now in the range of tens of billions of dollars—support African infrastructure development, agriculture, transportation, public health efforts, finance and banking, and more, says Gu at WES.

Education in China, or language and cultural experiences through Chinese efforts on the African continent, may also provide greater opportunity for African students to land a commodity that may be even more competitive than a university education: a posteducation job. While Chinese infrastructure projects across Africa often feature work teams of imported Chinese laborers, fluency in Mandarin and experience with Chinese practices could help Africans land jobs on Chinese infrastructure projects or as contractors servicing the same, King notes.

Though many of China’s higher education arrangements in Africa reflect government-to-government partnerships between China and specific African countries, they also foster relationships between individual institutions, says Gu. In 2009, the Chinese Ministry of Education launched the 20+20 Cooperation Plan, fostering one-to-one partnerships between 20 Chinese and 20 African higher education institutions in 17 African countries, with a particular focus on promoting capacity building and sustainable development in Africa.

The most recent batch of Chinese universities selected for the project includes several prestigious institutions, 10 of which are designated by China as key research institutions—including Peking University, Jilin University, East China Normal University, and others. Some Chinese universities have since initiated African institutes, centers, or study programs.

“My home institute, Jinan University in China, has developed quite close partnerships with the African host universities of Confucius Institutes,” says Ma at University of Cape Town, who previously served as joint director of the Confucius Institute at Rhodes University in South Africa. “The academic exchanges go well beyond merely language and culture. It also involves many other academic disciplines. We held China Week programs that formed as a bridge to link academics between Chinese and South African universities.”

China sees a variety of benefits from its African investments, Gu notes. As a form of soft power influence in these regions, their investments are part of a general effort to increase Chinese geopolitical influence and safeguard China’s interest in Africa’s natural resources. African initiatives originating from Chinese institutions diversify student experiences and expose them to different cultures at a time when China is rapidly expanding its role on the international stage.

An Alternative Model for African Higher Education

The results of African efforts to replicate Western higher education models, while simultaneously increasing capacity, have been decidedly mixed. And given the African youth bulge, the urgency to evolve is mounting.

Conversely, China has demonstrated extraordinary progress in developing its higher education sector that has largely been self-directed, managing to rapidly increase both the quantity and quality of its institutions, notes Cloete.

He says that the ability of Chinese institutions to distinguish themselves based on different teaching and research aims has been particularly impressive. A deliberate attempt to increase the diversity and robustness of Chinese education through centrally planned and executed models for different types of institutions has been successful. At the African institutions, conversely, the dominant model has largely involved replicating flagship state institutions, resulting in additional schools with similar strengths and weaknesses.

Still, some experts are dubious that much of the Chinese higher education model can be seamlessly imported to Africa. Missing in Africa, Cloete says, is the relative homogeneity of China’s population and the people’s experience with and receptivity to strong national government and centralized planning. After all, China is one of the original developers of effective, large-scale bureaucracies through its Mandarin system of imperial bureaucratic scholars. Across Africa—and indeed within specific African countries— there exists a vastly greater linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity.

Limitations—and Possible Strings Attached

There may be a ceiling to the China–Africa higher education relationship. At present, it is decidedly asymmetrical. As with Western institutional partners, few Chinese students study in African universities, according to UNESCO data, though this in part reflects the tremendous shortage of higher education slots that many African countries would prefer go to Africans.

That could change in some African countries, given plans under China’s Belt and Road Initiative to send Chinese students to countries involved in its massive infrastructure strategy. However, only a handful of African countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia—are slated to be included in the project, King says.

And while the model plays out well for the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and hard sciences, there may be limitations for social sciences, as well as for Western norms of free thought and inquiry, some say. China, including its higher education system, limits permissible topics of discussion in many forms, including censoring the ability of Chinese students and scholars to access the internet.

“It’s hard to agree that China and the Chinese higher education model may offer a formidable alternative to the Western model,” says Heidi Ostbo Haugen, associate professor in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo. “Censorship and the nationalizing of the curriculum at Chinese universities—for example, through making it increasingly cumbersome to put foreign texts on the curriculum and to invite foreign guest lecturers—is not conducive to producing top-quality research.”

“The problem may be particularly serious in the social sciences, where I work,” she says. “It has therefore been as easy to find good collaborators in Nigeria as in China for two of my recent funding applications, in spite of the immense differences in funding for research and higher education in the two countries.”

However, a higher education sector subject to a central government controls could have a relatively receptive audience in some African countries that have strong central governments themselves.

“The Chinese present that the United States overpoliticizes aid, while they are interested in development and don’t interfere and ask uncomfortable questions about the political system,” Cloete says. “Though I could see that becoming an issue—they control their society so tightly.”

King says that many African students often have little appetite for political discourse, given the long-standing dysfunctional political states in their home countries, and instead wish to focus on more practical aspects of their education that will support their careers.

“Many Africans in China find it a relief not to have the constant talk about politics they have at home,” King says. “Many appreciate that Chinese students just get on with it.”

Lasting Implications

Despite the differences in educational models between most Chinese and Western institutions, China’s long-term investment in many sectors across Africa is reaping rewards for its higher education sector at home.

As the number of African students studying in China continues to increase, institutions in other countries must be attuned to the implications of this growing influence for their campuses, their countries’ international student recruitment and enrollment goals, and the field of international education as a whole.

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