What Is China’s Higher Education Agenda In Africa?

Critical African Higher Education Experts Are Worried About The Increasing Influence Of China In African Universities

What Is China’s Higher Education Agenda In Africa?
By Eric Fredua Kwarteng

Over the past three decades, China has become Africa’s largest creditor with almost US$152 billion in loans for building roads, highways, dams, airports and skyscrapers. Almost every African country is indebted to China.

Under the caption ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy’, Wikipedia estimates that in 2020 Angola tops the list of the 10 most indebted countries in Africa, owing an estimated US$25 billion and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) comes at the bottom, owing approximately US$3.4 billion.

As it was asserted in the South China Morning Post in May 2018, China is now Africa’s most important economic partner. China has also successfully leveraged its economic influence to include African university education.

Confucius Institutes across Africa

During the peak of global communism between the 1950s and 1970s, China was sympathetic to Africa’s economic and political plight on ideological grounds. China also supported African countries that opted for communism and positioned itself as a global, moral role model.

In that period, as part of its development assistance, China offered Africans only a small number of graduate scholarships to study at its tertiary institutions. However, since 2000 China’s graduate scholarships and grants to Africans to study in its tertiary institutions have increased to about 61,000.

Over the same period, China has increasingly made its presence in Africa more visible by establishing more than 54 Confucius Institutes (CIs) and 27 Confucius Classrooms (CCs) across the African continent, according to the 2018 edition of Quartz Africa. Both CIs and CCs are major instruments designed to promote Mandarin and Chinese culture in Africa.

The South China Morning Post reports that China has been highly successful in creating a cultural footprint across Africa, the world’s fastest growing continent, through its Confucius Institutes.

Possible cultural influence

In addition, China’s 20+20 scheme announced at the November 2009 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) ministerial conference links 20 African universities and colleges with those in China. African universities selected for the scheme include the universities of Cairo, Nairobi, Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Pretoria, Makerere and Stellenbosch.

The scheme aims at ensuring a long-term collaboration between African and Chinese higher education. But collaboration for what? What could African universities learn from Chinese universities that they could not learn from European and American universities?

This is a critical question in that Chinese universities increasingly imitate and promote Western university education models for their own use. More precisely, the Chinese insistence that morality and service to the public interest should be an integral component of doctoral education is not quintessentially Chinese.

Quartz Africa also reported on 11 August 2018 that unlike France’s 180 Alliance Francaise centres, Germany’s 21 Goethe Institute centres, Portugal’s 34 Instituto Camões centres and the UK’s 38 British Council offices, China’s Confucius Institutes in Africa are established within colleges and universities across the African continent.

A Confucius Institute is also set up through a partnership between a Chinese university, a host country university and the office of Chinese language and culture promoter Hanban, an agency of the Chinese ministry of education and an affiliate of the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite the fact CIs are housed in African colleges and universities, they are funded and controlled by Hanban. In addition, a CI is allowed to develop and maintain ties with other local higher education institutions. For example, the CI in Cameroon’s public University of Yaoundé has ties with eight local universities and several private language colleges in the country. As a result, in 2017 it was able to enrol more than 10,000 students.

Nonetheless, we must ask why the Chinese government has chosen to establish CIs in African universities? According to my source, a Chinese graduate school colleague, African universities have become very important to China over the past 20 years.

Admittedly, university education is now expected to play a strategic role in African development compared to what was the case at the time of political independence in the 1960s. Indeed, owing to the fact that several empirical studies have demonstrated the importance of human capital, university education in Africa is now seen as a way of nurturing critical human capital for national development.

For this reason, the Chinese want their language and culture to become part of the education of generations of young African undergraduates. More importantly, China wants young Africans to know and appreciate its perspective on world history and to understand the models of economic and social development which have been distorted owing to the dominance of Europe and the United States in Africa.

My colleague says China is doing everything possible to ensure that it gradually wins the hearts and minds of young adult Africans, given the exponential growth of university institutions on the continent. Eventually, the idea is that educated Africans will look to China rather than Europe and America for intellectual inspiration, leadership and models of social and economic development.

This, of course, is a colonial model because colonialism is not merely about forcibly placing a piece of land under foreign control for the purpose of resource exploitation. Colonialism is also about the systematic indoctrination and acculturation of indigenous people for the purposes of cultural domination and exploitation.

Effects on Africa’s universities

In keeping with China’s strategic expectations, many African universities are now offering undergraduate degrees and diplomas in Chinese language and culture. An interesting case study is Makerere University in Uganda. In 2019 it launched its first bachelor degree in Chinese and Asian studies. And it is looking forward to creating Chinese and Asian studies degrees at the masters and doctoral level in the near future.

Though the bachelor degree at Makerere University is labelled Chinese and Asian studies, all the constituent courses are oriented towards Chinese language and culture. Where, one may ask, are the courses on Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Russia and Vietnam? Are these countries not part of Asia?

The presence of CIs in African universities could influence the academic programmes they offer, how they should be taught and which programmes should be given priority.

It is likely, however, that African governments will roll out more sycophantic policies in the higher education sector in favour of China, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has further impacted the ability of African countries to repay the debts they owe to China.

As a combined study by the Institute for Security Studies, the Gordon Institute of Business Science and the Frederick S Pardee Center for International Futures has indicated, the cost of repaying African debts and interests have increased substantially while many African currencies have depreciated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Another effect of the establishment of CIs in African universities is the possibility of crowding out other language programmes, such as German, Spanish, Arabic and Swahili, especially in Anglo-African countries. This may be an unintended consequence.

The problem is that Africa is economically and politically weak and has a burgeoning youth population. That makes it safe, fertile ground for China as a new flowering colonial power. Accordingly, the South China Morning Post declared in 2018 that China’s soft power policy in Africa was a winner.

The South China Morning Post has also asserted that Mandarin is beginning to challenge the ubiquity of European languages in African countries. While speculation about Mandarin replacing European languages in African universities is exaggerated, it is clear that Mandarin generally poses a formidable challenge to colonial languages in Africa.

The fact of the matter, however, is that English has attained international language status and has even made considerable inroads into Francophone Africa, owing mainly to the cultural influence of the United States as a global superpower.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 and a year earlier changed the medium of education from French to English. In addition, the English language is an indispensable language of communication between African-Americans and continental Africans.

Nonetheless, in Lusophone countries, such as Mozambique and Angola, that have loose ties with their former coloniser, Portugal, Mandarin has good prospects of rubbing shoulders with Portuguese as a national language.

History shows that Mozambique joined the Commonwealth in 1995, though it had no historical association with Great Britain’s colonisation in Africa. Angola has started campaigning to join the Commonwealth, citing weakness in the Portuguese Association and the continued rivalry between Portugal and Brazil.

Critical African higher education experts are worried about the increasing influence of China in African universities. Yet some higher education experts are optimistic that higher education partnerships between Africa and China will be founded on the basis of mutual respect, equality and honesty.

However, it is my view that African higher education leaders should take care and form alliances to protect their collective interests and to oppose any Chinese colonialism in the higher education sector.

This news was originally published at University World News

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