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Taking US and UK higher education to sub Saharan Africa

UNICAF’s Dr Kevin Andrews explores higher education in sub-Saharan Africa and the delivery models that are opening it up to the masses

In a little over five years UNICAF has grown from a micro-organisation providing online learning with just 15 registered students to become one of the leading players in tertiary education. Over 12,000 students are now on its books and 95% of them from African countries. The pace of development for UNICAF shows no signs of slowing which will see the student enrolment growing to an estimated 85,000 by 2023.
Dr Nicos Nicolaou, the founder and CEO of UNICAF is no stranger to successful institution building having established colleges and Universities in Europe, starting in 1987 in his native Cyprus. Nicos, who has worked internationally in the higher education sector for over two decades, continues to establish educational institutions in Europe. Intercollege, which then evolved into the University of Nicosia (UNIC), has now become one of the largest independent higher education institutions in Europe.
UNICAF developed out of the University of Nicosia as the online delivery platform targeting Africa and became the leading HE online platform in sub-Saharan Africa, offering a number of high quality undergraduate and postgraduate programmes with international recognition. As African students found it increasingly difficult to study overseas UNICAF brought international programmes to Africa – and indeed globally through online learning solutions. It now has a student body drawn from some 156 countries. The majority of those studying are adult learners who are also employed and therefore able to take advantage of the ‘earn-as-you-learn’, flexible delivery model implemented by the organisation.
UNICAF’s ambition is to make international-standard higher education that is engaging, rewarding and accessible to African professionals by providing blended and distance degree courses in partnership with foreign partner Universities from the UK and Europe.
Its innovations in developing the next generation of virtual learning environments allows its students to study from their homes, and yet be fully engaged in contacts with their peers and the highly qualified online instructors. The rich learning materials and easily accessible online library facilities that it has built into its virtual learning environment can be accessed at any time, from anywhere where there is an internet connection and from multiple platforms.
Some 75% of candidates located in Africa are accessing their courses and completing their assessments via mobile devices utilising the organisation’s state-of-the-art digital online platform. Recognising the challenge of connectivity in many target geographies, its systems are currently tuned to asynchronous delivery, but in a way that keeps candidates engaged in a real community of learning. It has also established learning centres and branch campuses across Africa where modern facilities ensure that its students can stay connected and feel supported. It already has a physical presence in nine African countries and plans to expand to five additional countries over the next two years.
UNICAF has been working to tackle the three key challenges widely recognised for the capacity constrained African tertiary education sector – access, quality and relevance. Through its models of partnership delivery it has encouraged its partner universities to contextualise the curriculum and the assessment vehicles. Standards and learning outcomes retain the gold seal of their international pedigree and still fall under the same robust quality assurance protocols as the home campus – however, the design of learning materials and assessments crucially allow African students to apply their developing skills and knowledge to their local situation, often applying theoretical concepts to their workplace.
The organisation’s systems are at the leading edge of effective technology enhanced learning – without the added costs of traditional campuses, and with the efficiencies of scale it has invested in scholarships to drive down the cost of education for its students to approximately 20% of the fees paid in the West for the same degrees. It also helps its strategic University partners reach out across borders to offer their degrees to an international audience without compromising the quality of the student experience.
Increasingly the distinction between the traditional campus and the virtual one is being blurred. All of its awarding body partners recognise the value and equivalence of online learning and see no distinction between the standards – irrespective of the mode of delivery. Successful partnership candidates can study online but graduates on campus at the awarding university and receive exactly the same certificates as their peers who may have studied on campus, but at a fraction of the fee.
While UNICAF has its headquarters in Europe, it has a physical presence in nine African locations in the form of support centres and through the establishment of a campus network of Unicaf Universities. The brand is owned by UNICAF and its investors, principally the UK’s CDC Group – the UK’s Development Finance Institution (DFI) which is wholly owned by the UK Government – and University Ventures in the US.
The flexible, accessible and affordable education that its model delivers is proving to be successful and in tune with the pivotal trends that point towards expansion of that model. By 2035 the number of Africans joining the working age population (15-64) will exceed the number contributed by the rest of the world combined – this offers a demographic dividend that could be realised with the right educational resources to channel that workforce into productive jobs. There has been a 20-fold increase in African international bandwidth since 2010 with mobile subscriptions soaring from 200 million in 2010 to 445 million today – positive signs of greater internet penetration. These trends are driving increased urbanisation in Africa to hub locations and a growth of a more affluent middle class – all positive forces that favour the continued success of its model.
Today, only 7% of young people in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in higher education institutions compared to the global average of 36 percent. Agenda 2063, the plan for Africa’s transformation, agreed by the 54 members of the African Union in 2013 states that at least 70% of all high-school graduates should continue into higher education. This is twice the current global average enrolment and more than nine times the current sub-Saharan African average of seven per cent.
Nigeria is a good example of the problems faced by high school graduates in sub-Saharan Africa trying to enter into a tertiary education institution. Approximately 1.7 million high school graduates take the national exams each year for only 500,000 seats. So 1.2 million students each year cannot get into universities just in Nigeria alone.
UNICAF is offering a solution to the HE capacity issue in sub-Saharan Africa. Already more than 12,000 students have taken advantage of the affordable quality degrees offered by the organisation.

Posted on: 07/11/2017

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