China’s Educating Africa

Stories in the press of deepening China-Africa ties focus mainly on commodities, corruption, and labour struggles. Alongside these more commercial and economic ties, there are health, education and political exchanges. This article looks today’s much deeper and ever-deepening educational ties between China and African countries around the following pillars: scholarships for Africans to study in China; investments in universities and think tanks in Africa; and Confucius Institutes, and challenges going forth.


A. Historical Background  

China began direct educational exchange with African countries roughly the end of the colonial era, around 1960. In the early days the focus was student exchange. While the flow of students was in favour of African students going to study in China, there were also an increasing number of teacher visits to Africa to study African education systems. The Cultural Revolution, which began in 1965 and lasted a decade, soon enough brought the closure of China’s university system. Fledgling educational exchange between China and Africa was similarly all but halted. Ties were re-started in the 1980s.

By 1996 the Government reported that a total of 4,570 African exchange students had studied in China. Educational cooperation has expanded most over the most recent decade, alongside expanded economic ties. At the political level, and following the establishment of the Forum on China and Africa in 2001, the first Sino-African Education Minister Forum took place in Beijing in 2005. Education ministers from 17 African countries participated, deciding to focus on primary, but also vocational and technical education.

Beyond FOCAC but still at the political level, a two-day 2011 UNESCO-China-Africa University Leaders Meeting brought 44 university presidents from China and Africa to Paris. Leaders discussed how to enhance cooperation between schools in China and Africa. In July of 2012 meantime, China launched a three-year “African Talents Plan”, aiming to train 30,000 Africans and award 18,000 government scholarships.


B. Examples of Cooperation


·      Scholarships for study in China

Through its programme of commitments launched at and followed up through the Forum on China and Africa (FOCAC), China in 2011 promised to train 30,000 Africans. This would include 18,000 scholarships, as well as 1,500 medical professionals sent to Africa to train local staff locally.

Most of these scholarships go far beyond learning Chinese, often including two years of Chinese language training followed by the length of a degree in the subject area of interest. An increasing number of scholarship students study for degrees taught in English. It is reported that approximately 40% of scholarships are for undergraduate studies, 40% for masters degrees, and the remaining 20% comprised of scholarships for doctoral studies and other scholars.

Students receiving these scholarships are deliberately placed in universities across the country, rather than directed toward just elite schools in Beijing’s Haidian district or elsewhere. Alongside these scholarship students are also an increasing number of fee-paying students, numbers about which are difficult to come by. An earlier article on Sinograduate elaborates broader trends in China’s scholarships.

An increasing number of scholarships are for technical fields, especially in sciences. China’s focus on higher education is arguably at this stage  complementary to the recent United Nations Millennium Development Goals focus on primary, and to a lesser extent, secondary education. The impact on the broader education sector and international cooperation is a story unfolding.


·      University Capacity Development

China facilitates the development of African universities through a number of vehicles. It for example there is a “China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Plan”, through which China is reported to sponsor 100 programmes for research, exchange and cooperation between academic institutions and scholars on both sides. Additionally, the 20+20 Cooperation Plan for Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Education. Outgoing Chinese President Hu pledged to African leaders that China would seek to expand collaboration in science especially, through new initiatives in agriculture, health, water, forestry and meteorological technologies, and capacity building.

An early example of cooperation under the plan was Suzhou University sending computer professors to Uganda and Tanzania for two years on exchange toward support of IT technical assistance and development. It is typical that teacher exchanges to Africa focus on science, technology, agriculture and medicine.

At the national level, China has provided financing for the construction of a number of universities in Africa. In September of 2012, China agreed a loan with the government of South Sudan for the construction of university campuses. Valued at $2.5bn, the loan is intended to fund the construction of five public university campuses. Construction should be completed by 2017.

China has similarly helped to build research institutes, especially those focused on health and agriculture. The agricultural research center in Mali’s Koulikoro region agreed in mid-2012. On the other hand, it was reported and for example that the multi-billion dollar Ghana-China health facility, now named the Teshie General Hospital and Malaria Research Centre is said not to have realized its promise to serve as a regional malaria research hub, as does a similar center in Vietnam.

   Think Tanks

China is also building deeper ties with think tanks in Africa. In 2011 the first meeting of the China-Africa Think Tank Forum took place in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, at Zhejiang Normal University’s Institute of African Studies and China-Africa Business School, which serve as the Forum’s standing secretariat. Under the banner “Chinese and African Common Interests: Current Issues and Future Perspectives on Governance, Peace and Security” the second such Forum was held in Ethiopia in October 2012.  The China-Africa 10+10 Partnership Plan, which pairs 10 Chinese and 10 African think tanks so as to focus a deeper and long-term bilateral cooperation.

·      Confucius Institutes

China opened its first Confucius Institute in Africa in Kenya, in 2005. Between times, a further 28 Institutes have been opened in a total of 22 countries in Africa. South Africa has the highest number of Institutes in Africa, at four Institutes, at Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Tshwane University of Technology and Cape Town Universities. The Institutes are funded by the Chinese government as well as earn revenue through fees for selective courses. They promote Chinese language and culture toward deeper friendship and cooperation. A full list by country is available here.

China cooperates with the African education sector in additional ways to those outlined. For example, an increasing number of Chinese teachers are being sent to Africa to facilitate Chinese language teaching. In addition, China has a youth volunteer program, something akin to Peace Corps or Volunteers Services Abroad, that can often be training related.


C. Challenges

While the array of opportunity for students and researchers are emerging in China and in Africa, a number of challenges confront the efficiency and long-term returns to educational exchange. South Africa’s Polity website raises the fact that since most exchange is government-to-government, the resulting diplomatic umbrella “leaves a vacuum of audit”. Similarly, in 2009 the New York Times reported that China had discreetly awarded scholarships to the offspring of nine top officials in Namibia, including the President’s daughter. Anecdotally, evidence suggests that language training may be insufficient for the more technical courses, while English language alternatives of different focus and quality to courses in Chinese. Least of all the latter are largely without local students with whom to form peer relations with.

Upon graduation some students from Africa (and indeed from many regions) would prefer to work in China for a few further years. This would internationalise their professional skills, perhaps offer a higher salary, as well as greater chance to learn about China and to apply their language skills. However, visa rules applying to all non-Chinese nationals require that an applicant for a work visa has two years work experience. This prohibits many Chinese-trained African scholars from taking advantage of opportunities in China, though may increase the shorter-term rate of return to the home country, if this is where the graduate goes.

A longer-term issue is that an unknown number of graduate African students in China pivot from China toward immigration to high-income countries. This leaves the ultimate return to African nations unquantifiable. In addition, while such graduates evidently leave China with a solid understanding of China, their international reputation remains relatively unknown. Confucius Institutes too have recently experienced some controversy in America, while their longer-term role inside university campuses is similarly different to the more independently standing British Council or German Goethe Institutes.

According to news reports the depth and breadth of the bilateral educational ties between China and Africa is growing relatively rapidly, but the more precise scope and results are not yet known. There is only limited available data in terms of money lent in this sector, from which countries scholarship students are from and nor what majors they study. Their path thereafter if tracked is not published in the general media.

There is much to study and be learned of China-Africa educational cooperation. Better such an understanding should furthermore help to increase the rate of return to both sides of such investments.



With $20bn loan pledge, China strengthens its ties to African Nations, New York Times (20/07/12)

China and Australia to further support African universities, University World News (27/07/12) 

Blackboard cooperation: China’s role in educating Africa, Polity (03/07/12) 

China-Africa Think Tanks Forum opens in Ethiopia, Xinhuanet (13/10/12)

Confucius Institute homepage

China Helps the Powerful in Namibia, New York Times (20/11/09)

China to increase support for African science, Scidevnet (06/08/12)

Blackboard cooperation: China’s Role in Educating Africa, Polity (03/07/12

 South Sudan plans China-backed $2.5bn university project, Reuters (13/09/12)

Chinese-funded military university opened by Mugabe, University World News (30/09/12)

Chinese health facility for malaria research left to rot, Ghanamma (15/08/12)


Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *