Foreign Higher Education Activity in Francophone Africa

To date, Africa has remained in large part unaffected by transnational higher education. Evidence suggests that, until now, the vast majority of foreign educational activity has been concentrated in emerging or middle- to high-income economies, while the developing world has generally possessed insufficient capital or individual wealth to attract or sustain this type of provision on a substantial scale. In the world of transnational higher education, countries in Francophone Africa face a double challenge. In addition to the problems common to most African countries (e.g. capacity gap, fiscal constraints), the dominance of the English language presents its own difficulties.

Until now, the main language communities in Africa have developed transnational higher education in relative isolation, and little information has been made available on cross-border developments outside of the English-speaking regions of the continent. The limited information and data collected on foreign educational activity in French-speaking Africa are scattered across institutional websites, newspapers, academic journals and books, with very few sources available in English and even fewer attempts at synthesis.

Based on a substantial report recently published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education this article is an attempt to provide an overview of foreign educational activity in Francophone Africa. The aim is to raise practical questions over the added-value potential of foreign educational activity in the sub-region, and to examine the sustainability of the Francophone capacity-building model versus the more revenue-generating model generally found in the Anglophone world.

Scale and Regulation of Foreign Activity

Francophone Africa is made up of 29 countries (eighteen where French is the official language, six where it is one of two official languages, and five countries where French is not one of the official languages but has a powerful presence). The combined population is approximately 394 million (there are conflicting figures). Francophone Africa does not constitute a single political, economic, or cultural entity, and member countries exhibit a highly varied scale of foreign educational activity. There is a direct correlation between national economic conditions (i.e. GDP per capita) and the level of foreign activity, with the least developed countries remaining largely unaffected by this type of provision. The most active and diverse sites of transnational higher education tend to be concentrated in the North African (i.e. Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt) and Indian Ocean (i.e. Mauritius) regions. Only three countries (Tunisia, Mauritius and possibly Senegal) are judged to exhibit both import and export activity. These countries have encouraged the import of foreign educational delivery in an attempt to claim ‘regional hub’ status and have reported export activities in the sub-region (albeit on a small scale).

There is a growing demand for transnational higher education across Francophone Africa. The vast majority of national higher education systems are characterized by a growing gap between demand and supply. There is a gradual trend towards privatization, but until now the domestic private sector has not been able to meet burgeoning demand. Domestic provision is in many countries perceived to be of low quality and high study abroad rates suggest a significant demand for foreign qualifications. Traditionally, student mobility has accounted for the majority of cross-border provision. However, overseas study remains too expensive for the majority, whereas in-country foreign provision is an increasingly viable and attractive alternative. In-country foreign fees are often in large part subsidized by external funding sources and, in cases where student fees apply, a growing proportion of the population is able to pay for (generally affordable) imported provision.

In the majority of cases, the regulatory environment allows the import of provision. Although very few countries have developed regulatory frameworks for transnational higher education, most governments have encouraged this type of provision through their stated mission to curb study abroad rates and maximize tertiary participation. Other perceived benefits include domestic capacity building, widening student choice and enhancing innovation and competitiveness in the sector. There is a growing attempt to encourage this type of provision at the (sub) regional level, as a significant number of countries lack the resources and institutional coordination to implement a successful regulatory framework. The African and Malgache Higher Education Council (CAMES), established in 2000 as a coordinating agency for French-speaking higher education institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, has announced plans to spearhead regional developments in this area.

Yet opportunity is matched by attendant risk. Political upheavals and uncertainty have deterred foreign investment in certain countries. There appear to be limited possibilities for institutional partnerships due to a widespread lack of local expertise or knowledge. There are remarkably few examples of collaborative (e.g. twinning or franchise) arrangements in the sub-region, which could be linked to the perceived poor training of the local workforce and limited possibilities for recruitment of local staff.  Concerns over financial risk have also been raised due to the tradition of ‘free university education for all.’ Incoming providers have reported difficulties in subsidizing the costs of tuition fees and in many cases have failed to secure local investment due to poor socio-economic conditions. The lack of regulatory frameworks for foreign providers might facilitate entry into the market, but concerns have also been raised over ‘soft market’ value and potential risks to institutional reputation in the case of failed educational ventures.

Nature and Examples of Foreign Activity

An overview of foreign provision in Francophone Africa reveals a flurry of activity, with an increase in the number and diversification of providers involved. Until now the vast majority of cross-border projects in the sub-region have been spearheaded by the developed countries of the Francophone world (particularly France), with little involvement from local or regional actors. The Agence Universitaire de la Francophone (AUF) has been at the forefront of higher education developments in French-speaking Africa. In contrast to the often competing national agencies of the English-speaking world, AUF is an intriguing international body unified by a language ‘under threat’, which is aimed at coordinating and enhancing French language higher education worldwide. A ‘top-down’ capacity-building approach has been adopted, in line with the inherited Francophone tradition of ‘free university education for all.’  Research undertaken by the Observatory suggests that in light of the collapse of numerous foreign educational ventures, there is a growing attempt to adopt a more sustainable model of provision. Francophone Africa is increasingly moving towards a diversification of funding sources, increase in student fees and a more ‘bottom-up’ model of collaboration with growing host country involvement. The rapid increase in the number and diversification of actors could suggest growing competition for students (greater need for innovation), but also an overlap in provision (duplication of efforts). The overall trend points towards a more economically driven approach.

Face-to-Face Provision

There would appear to be no comprehensive list of foreign higher education activity in Francophone Africa. The Observatory’s report provides twenty examples of both face-to-face and distance/online foreign educational activity in order to distil emerging models and trends. Large-scale face-to-face foreign operations (e.g. branch campuses) that were established prior to the mid-1990s have generally been in receipt of multilateral funding (mainly from the AUF), and are almost entirely owned, managed and operated by a consortia of foreign actors (versus a single institution). This could reflect an attempt to reduce operational costs and share risk management, as the majority in large part (if not entirely) continue to subsidize student tuition fees.

The inherited tradition of ‘free university education for all’ appears to have limited the potential for widespread access, as the majority of tuition-free programs are already confronted by significant capacity problems and burgeoning demand. This type of provision inarguably assists in building local capacity in key market areas, but with less than an average one-tenth of applicants accepted, the large-scale impact appears limited. Examples of institutions based on the capacity-building model include the Panafrican Institute for Economic Co-operation (ISPEC, an AUF-backed institution with headquarters in Benin and four regional branches), Senghor Alexandrie University (USA, a multilaterally funded management training institution in Egypt) and the AUF-backed Francophone Institute for Business Management (IFE) in Mauritius.

There is evidence over time of greater ambition and greater commitment on the part of joint ventures moving from joint centers/programs to branch campuses. The overall shift is from small-scale, capacity-building projects (generally sustainable over a limited funding period) to more large-scale, economically driven ventures (with more private investment, introduction of student fees, etc). There is a potential shift towards a branch campus model in countries such as Mauritius, Senegal and Lebanon where national authorities have explicitly invited foreign institutions to commence operations. Examples include the School for Business Management and Administration (ESA), established in Lebanon as a joint venture between the Lebanon and Paris Chambers of Commerce to promote economic links between the two countries. The French University of Egypt (UFE) is operated by a consortium of France-based organizations and is supported by significant private investment from both the source and host countries.

Although still a minority trend, there are several examples of large-scale operations established by non-Francophone actors. US-based Suffolk University opened a joint center in Dakar, Senegal, in 1999 in collaboration with a local business school. There are two examples of Indian branch campuses operating in Mauritius. The Mauras College of Dentistry was established in 2003 by India’s Bhavnagar University to offer post-graduate programs to students across the Indian Ocean sub-region, and India’s Sikkim Manipal University has recently announced plans to open a branch campus offering tertiary programs in information and communications technology (ICT). The diversification of actors suggests that it is not only French-speaking countries that have an interest in operating in the sub-region.

Online and Distance Provision

While still a minority trend, e-learning is increasingly viewed as a viable alternative to large-scale face-to-face delivery, particularly in light of rapid population growth, increasing ICT funding and limited indigenous higher education infrastructure. The vast majority of countries in French-speaking Africa do not possess sufficient capital or individual wealth to sustain large-scale, face-to-face operations, but forms of ICT-enhanced learning could expand access without any in-country commitment required from the source country. However, poor technological infrastructure, low bandwidth availability and language remain important barriers to online access. According to the AUF, the past decade has seen a proliferation of online and distance learning players in the sub-region with little mission coordination or institutional collaboration. A growing number of foreign institutions offering tertiary programs online or at a distance have reported difficulties in subsidizing student fees and several have collapsed after the initial funding period came to an end. There is a growing attempt among online and distance learning providers to diversify funding sources and increase student fees.

The most recent online foreign initiatives include plans by the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, to launch the African University of the Future (UFA). The UFA will beam post-graduate courses via satellite from the US to partner institutions across French-speaking Africa. The Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC), a national body that administers around 40 US universities, is the lead partner and investor in the project, although no less than US$14 million has allegedly been secured from the Government of Taiwan. Another major online venture backed by significant private investment is the recently launched World Francophone e-University (UNFM). The Pathfinder Foundation for Education and Development (a France-based non-profit organization aimed at spearheading ICT initiatives in Francophone Africa) has formed a partnership with France’s National Space Study Centre (CNES) and Alcatel Space (AS, a France-based satellite manufacturer) to launch the international e-university project. Eight African countries have been selected for the initial phase of the project (launched in July 2005), with the long-term view to expanding provision to all regions of the Francophone world.  Local news coverage has suggested that the UNFM initiative, a potentially global university system, could be reminiscent of the ambition of the dotcom era, and that organizers might wish to learn from the mistakes of their forebears.

One site where the Anglophone and Francophone worlds meet is the African Virtual University (AVU). In March 2004, the AUF formed a partnership with the AVU to collaborate in the development of course content in French, exchange of instructional material and technological experimentation. Until now, transnational initiatives in French-speaking Africa have developed in relative isolation, but the AVU’s recent partnership with the Agency might be viewed as an attempt to bridge the existing divide and promote institutional collaboration between the two language communities. The prospects of cross-fertilization (rather than ongoing separate development by language) remain unclear.

Key Findings

There is currently a paucity of information on foreign educational activity in French-speaking Africa. An overview of cross-border developments in the sub-region suggests that transnational activity based on the capacity-building model can develop on a substantial scale, but the prospects for long-term sustainability remain less clear. No country appears to collect data on foreign educational activity, and the lower-income economies remain largely unaffected by this type of provision. Large-scale developments are almost exclusively concentrated in the more developed countries of the sub-region. This trend is likely to continue as incoming providers attempt to achieve a more refined balance between developmental/commercial objectives.

It is indisputable that over the past decade transnational activity has expanded significantly in French-speaking Africa, foreign ventures have become more ambitious and the type of providers involved has become increasingly diverse. Some countries have invariably been more affected than others, but as cross-border activity becomes increasingly widespread across the sub-region, it might be appropriate to attempt to fashion a conceptual model that transcends existing norms. Some of the key lessons from this report include:

  • There are very few national regulatory mechanisms for transnational higher education. Potential exceptions could include Mauritius, Senegal and Tunisia, where plans are underway to introduce regulations for this type of provision.
  • There is little empirical evidence of the impact of transnational higher education on host countries in the sub-region. Very few, if any, countries collect data on foreign educational activity, or impose development-based conditions (e.g. local relevance of course content and long-term investment) on foreign establishment.
  • There are growing attempts to achieve a balance between commercial and developmental objectives in this area. Without external/government funding, it will be difficult for the host country to insist on a strong developmental agenda, and equally more difficult for the foreign provider to develop such an agenda that is financially viable. Online and distance learning could be a more cost-effective alternative to face-to-face delivery, although ICT infrastructure remains a major barrier. Mauritius, Tunisia and Senegal offer good examples of how national governments can put in place a range of structures and incentives to bring foreign educational provision into the mainstream.
  • There is growing collaboration with other language communities, with the African Virtual University as the obvious site where the French- and English-speaking worlds unite. It is certainly true that the English-speaking world’s knowledge of, for example, use of ICT in Francophone higher education, is severely limited. ICT use in the two worlds, and associated problems of ensuring the practical value of infrastructure, are unsurprisingly familiar and there could be added-value potential in sharing institutional experience in this area.


It is clear that the developmental potential of transnational delivery in French-speaking Africa has yet to be realized. However, as foreign educational activity becomes increasingly widespread across the sub-region, the question begs to be raised: how might countries in Francophone Africa maximize the developmental benefits and minimize the potential risks of transnational higher education?  Although this article does not attempt to address the complexity of this issue, future innovation may emphasize the value of improved data collection, tighter quality assurance, mission co-ordination (particularly in light of the increase in the number and diversification of players) and impact assessment. International organizations could make an important contribution by providing financial assistance to support infrastructure development in relation to information and communication technology, student support and regulatory arrangements. Regional bodies such as the AUF, AVU and CAMES might assume an increasingly central role in overseeing transnational developments, particularly as incoming providers move towards a more economically driven approach. Host countries might also wish to consider developing appropriate quality assurance mechanisms for imported educational activity and imposing development-based conditions on foreign establishment. Until questions are raised over the extent to which foreign provision seriously addresses the development agenda of the host country, the added-value potential of transnational higher education to French-speaking Africa will remain largely unknown.

Lisa Jokivirta is a Research Officer at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Address: Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, 36 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PF, UK. E-mail: <[email protected]>.

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education is a strategic information service aimed at keeping subscribers abreast of global developments in e-learning, transnational higher education and new providers (e.g. for-profit universities). For further details, please refer to the Observatory website ( providing access to expert reports, in-house briefings and breaking news analysis.

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