Africa: The Next Market for Cross-Border Higher Education?

Africa has not enjoyed the boom of foreign education providers that has occurred in other parts of the world. New physical locations for higher education established by international universities and colleges–international branch campuses — have been multiplying in Asia and the Middle East. Now, with the announcement of Carnegie Mellon University opening a campus in Rwanda, there are at least eight branch campuses on the African continent operated by universities from Australia, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. It is reasonable to ask whether Africa is poised to be the next market for cross-border higher education.

While an increasing number of institutions have entered into joint ventures and memorandums of understanding with African institutions, few have sought to develop a physical presence to offer their own courses and degrees locally to African students. On the one hand, it is surprising that more institutions are not involved in Africa given its high demand for education and generally weak university infrastructure. If international branch campuses are primarily about increasing educational opportunities for local students, then it is hard to think of a region more in need of this than Africa. On the other hand, many of the international branches we have seen are interested in revenue generation for the home campus as much or more than building capacity for the host government. On this account, Africa is less desirable because there is less money available to support a break-even (let alone profitable) business model. Foreign institutions would likely need subsidies to be able to support the development of a foreign campus; but why would governments invest resources in foreign education providers, when the existing state system is itself poorly financed?

As we have argued previously, governments tend to recruit foreign education providers for three primary reasons. First, importing nations see foreign education providers as a means for increasing access to high-quality educational experiences (though, sometimes the higher quality can be more perceived than real). Second, it is often assumed that, because of its existing infrastructure at home, the branch campus will more likely become a significant contributor to the local research and innovation infrastructure (and ultimately economic growth) than a similar investment in the local educational system. Third, the affiliation with a prestigious educational institution is a status symbol for the host country. By locating a campus in the nation, an institution such as Carnegie Mellon draws attention to the nation and can indirectly signal to the external world that it believes the nation to be of increasing global importance.

However, the relationship between the branch campus and the importing country is two-sided. As we discuss in our forthcoming book, Multi-National Colleges and Universities (Jossey-Bass), no matter how much a country wants to import a foreign campus, there has to be an institution willing to engage in the endeavor. And, as we have seen over the past decade, the development of a branch does not come without risks. Such campuses have failed due to poor business models (Michigan State in Dubai and the University of New South Wales in Singapore), disagreements with local partners (George Mason University in the United Arab Emirates), and the inability to adapt to changing local regulations (Bond University in South Africa).

Such failures have not stopped the development of branch campuses abroad, but they have made institutions more cautious; and rightly so. Local students do not always have the academic preparation, financing, or interest to attend. Governments and their interests change; and branches have little legal protections when operating overseas. Some institutions have found it difficult to conduct teaching and business affairs in cultures vastly different from that of the home country. And, since few institutions are able or willing to devote home campus resources to subsidize a foreign campus, the means for covering the start-up and ongoing operating costs often come from the host government and private-sector partners.

It is notable, therefore, that the Carnegie Mellon branch is reportedly being built with money from the African Development Bank, with the support of the Rwandan government. The willingness of the bank to subsidize the cost of a campus provides the deep pockets that are typically needed to get a successful campus off the ground. Subsidies provide the time to develop high-quality, sustainable academic programs and to respond to local research agendas, rather than needing local student fees to immediately cover all expenses. Moreover, local government support helps the campuses navigate local regulations and provides legitimacy in the local market.

It is probably safe to assume that other African governments would want international branch campuses to help develop their local educational capacity. Perhaps this initial effort by the development bank foreshadows a growing interest in subsidizing such activities and more universities will follow Carnegie Mellon’s lead. Without such support, however, the building of branch campuses in Africa is likely to remain a rare and risky endeavor.

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