Universities need a bold strategy for UK-Africa exchanges

As UK universities prepare for Turing, there's a chance to extend the benefits of exchanges beyond Europe to Africa, says Esenam Agubretu

Esenam Agubretu is a public affairs professional.

UK education institutions continue to enjoy popularity with international students worldwide. Despite Brexit and a pandemic, there has been an increase in enrolment from non-EU countries.

This highlights the importance of UK institutions thinking more broadly about their markets and developing partnerships that extend beyond the shores of Europe, in a post-Brexit world.

The UK Government is progressing with the Turing Scheme, which will allow participants to study and work overseas as a replacement for participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

The well-rehearsed benefits of enhanced employability and personal development for participants in the Erasmus scheme, made the pushback especially from universities concerned about the UK’s reluctance to continue participation in the Erasmus Scheme unsurprising.

However, as a mainly European scheme, its benefits and distinct advantage of not requiring the participant to have enormous amounts of money spare for tuition and accommodation was effectively limited to UK-European interactions.

These benefits should now be maximised on a more international scale by maximising the purportedly global nature of the Turing Scheme, particularly in a UK-Africa context for mutual gains.

Places to be

Africa is teeming with young people full of talent and energy. Actors such as Big Tech in recognition of the booming tech industry have been quick to move, with Twitter’s recent announcement to set up a regional headquarters in Ghana being an example.

Despite its challenges, the continent is fast establishing itself as a commercial destination in its own right, with young people who are taking advantage of technological advances to better their lot. A prudent and strategic move would be for British universities to facilitate more British-African exchanges especially outbound trips for their students onto the African continent to enable them develop an understanding of the language, people and financial landscape necessary for building future partnerships and developing employability.

In a similar vein, the continent is brimming with educational and cultural and historical relevance, which will offer British students insightful and exciting experiences. As well as the scenic views of mountains, wildlife and safari parks which Africa is known for, exchange participants can visit places of historical relevance.

While many would be used to the often-disturbing spectacle of starving children in needy communities that the image of Africa conjures, British students would be able to visit, live in communities and understand the wider context within African settings instead of the often-singular experience achieved through ‘voluntourism’. African students visiting the UK as exchange participants would also enrich the cultural diversity of UK campuses.

The notion that good education should offer exposure to different socio-economic backgrounds underscores the case for an Africa focus. Recognising the need for British students to mix with people from different socio-economic backgrounds, stakeholders have been proposing and putting in measures to attract EU students in a post-Brexit world.

This line of thinking should be employed to exchange placements as relates to Africa. With a diverse range of nationalities, tribes and languages as well as being a growing region which still has the incidence of the largest proportion of the world’s poorest population, encouraging exchanges to and from African soil is a good step towards ensuring exposure to socio-economic diversity.

Why not?

Compared to destinations like China and the Indo-Pacific which is now the object of the government’s focus, African countries are arguably not considered the prime market for the UK and its universities in developing commercial relationships. The increase in enrolment from non-EU countries like India and the need to address the shortfall in enrolment from students EU countries presents the possibility of Africa being seen as non-urgent.

There are also real issues to be addressed about perceived and actual concerns regarding British students living, studying and working abroad including the availability and safety of accommodation for students as well as the existence of potential partner institutions in Africa.

Universities might also be concerned about income generation and the ability of African students to pay. The noted high rate of visa refusals to Africans even when they qualify and the high amounts needed to qualify for the financial requirements for a visa further compounds the hurdles in pushing for increased exchanges in UK institutions.

But these challenges are not insurmountable. Good institutions exist in Africa with private institutions increasing and pushing educational standards higher. There has also been the recent trend of British universities setting up branches or partnerships in Africa. These provide a useful foundation for building relationships and facilitating Africa- bound exchanges.

The sample of potential exchange partners could be widened further through a scoping exercise to identify more stakeholders including vocational and cultural institutions. An optimism founded on the potential gains of British students undertaking exchanges in Africa and concerted efforts to investigate concerns, dispel myths and establish relevant processes are key to establishing Africa-bound exchanges.

The high value that Africans place on education and the UK as a destination, evident through the vast number of African students over the years means that just like their counterparts in other parts of the world, those who can afford it will pursue this option. People in less comfortable circumstances will still see this as a goal and may need some help.

In this sense, it might be worth British institutions considering scholarship schemes as well as innovative and flexible initiatives that reduce the financial burden and allow students to maximise their time in the UK. And despite the understandable hesitance of universities to get involved in visa application issues, a dedicated and well-resourced unit that builds on institutions experience of supporting African applicants, seeks to understand the obstacles face in participating UK bound exchanges, provides guidance to them, helps them make effective applications or flag issues at a policy level would be useful in facilitating exchanges to UK soil.

As UK institutions prepare for the Turing Scheme, they should view this as a new era to extend the benefits of educational exchanges which have been experienced particularly through the Erasmus Scheme beyond Europe to Africa. Mutual benefits stand to be gained but this recognition is crucial first in order to act and accrue those gains.

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