Why International Private Schools Are Booming in Africa
After China’s crackdown, foreign education providers eye opportunities in countries such as Nigeria and Egypt.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Foreign private education providers look to market opportunities in Africa in the wake of China’s crackdown on the sector, military infighting delays Sudan’s democratic transition plans again, and protesters in Ethiopia’s Amhara region demonstrate against a plan to integrate regional militias into the federal army.
Africa’s Private School Boom?
British universities depend on foreign students who pay a premium for a U.K. education, many of them Chinese nationals. But since China cracked down on foreign education and its economy has stagnated, British institutions are looking to expand their base of foreign students. Nigerian students now make up the third-largest foreign cohort in U.K. universities, from nearly 11,000 students in the 2017-18 academic year to more than 44,000 in 2021-22.
That shift has reverberated in the African education sector, both primary and secondary. With the boom in China over, private education providers have expanded globally. In Africa, international schools once marketed to the children of diplomats and other expatriates now target wealthy locals, particularly in Nigeria and Egypt, Africa’s two biggest economies.
Private British education is expanding quickly on the continent. In September, King’s College Schools plans to open a new campus in Cairo, and Uppingham School is slated to follow with its own Cairo campus in 2024. Charterhouse will launch its first African campus in Lagos, Nigeria, which it describes as a “natural progression” after long welcoming Nigerian students to its U.K. campus. These schools are operated by regional institutions that pay royalty fees to the affiliated British school.
In January, the U.K. foreign trade department organized a trip for officials from more than 20 British private boarding schools to Lagos to cultivate partnerships with local private schools and “learn what parents are looking for.” West African elites annually spend more than $37 million on the U.K. education sector, according to estimates in a 2021 Carnegie report. (Some U.K. higher education leaders warn that proposed immigration policies to restrict student visas would amount to “economic self-harm.”)
Parents are likely attracted to foreign providers because they tend to offer higher teaching standards and more funding to circumvent infrastructure problems such as poor internet connectivity. “Public schools often face issues about not meeting the required literacy levels for the bulk of the student cohort. There is this quality gap that private [schools] come in to bridge,” said Sudeep Laad, a partner at L.E.K. Consulting in Singapore who advises firms on investments in the international education sector.
Laad added that there is a perception that private schools that replicate the British curriculum will lead to easier access to foreign universities. Of course, this comes at a steep price: In Nigeria, enrollment fees at elite private schools start at $10,000 a year and can cost as much as $32,000. The average annual salary in Nigeria is just $8,000.
The boom in private education also calls renewed attention to less scrupulous providers. Education experts have long raised concerns about Bridge International Academies, a for-profit company founded by two Americans that competes with near-free government schools in Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Uganda. Bridge has support from institutions and individuals including the U.K. government, the European Investment Bank, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2016, Uganda ordered the closure of Bridge schools after government inspectors said it operated substandard and unsanitary facilities. The company has faced backlash for hiring less qualified teachers and paying teachers poorly. Last month, an Intercept investigation documented years of alleged sexual abuse and exploitation at Bridge schools in Kenya. Last year, the International Finance Corp. quietly pulled its funding from the company, though it is now an indirect investor.
The growing appeal of private education in Egypt, Nigeria, and elsewhere on the continent ultimately reflects systemic issues, such as poor economic growth and the perceived preference for foreign degrees by African employers. Without local job opportunities and functioning government education systems, students and their families will continue to see private foreign education as an aspirational bridge to a new life abroad.
Notably, China reportedly offers more scholarships to African nationals than institutions in the West—despite accounts of widespread racism. Between 2003 and 2018, the number of African students in China rose from fewer than 2,000 to more than 80,000.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, April 12: The U.N. Security Council discusses the U.N. mission in Mali.
Ramin Toloui, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, provides opening remarks at the Africa Fintech Summit in Washington.
Ghana releases inflation data for March.
Friday, April 14: Nigeria releases inflation data for March.
Monday, April 17: Former South African President Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial resumes.
Tuesday, April 18: The U.N. Security Council discusses sanctions on Libya and the U.N. mission in Libya.
Zimbabwe celebrates gaining independence from Britain in 1980.
What We’re Watching
Sudan’s democratic transition. Negotiations to integrate Sudan’s powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia into the country’s army have yet again delayed the timeline for Sudan’s transition to democracy following a 2021 coup. Sudan’s military leaders planned to agree to a political framework by April 1, with a target of putting a new civilian government in place by April 11. Reforms to the security and military sector will be part of this final agreement; the RSF has insisted that it should be given 10 years to integrate into the federal army.
The rivalry between Sudan’s coup leaders—military chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—has repeatedly hindered setting up a civilian administration. Last Thursday, hundreds of protesters gathered in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, calling for a swifter transition. The demonstrations also marked the fourth anniversary of a 2019 uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir.
Protests in Ethiopia. Since last Thursday, thousands of people in Ethiopia’s Amhara region have been protesting against a government plan to integrate regional armies into the police or national army. The Amhara special forces fought with the federal army during the two-year civil war in the neighboring region, but Amhara leaders have accused Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government of planning to return recaptured territory to Tigray and of ignoring atrocities against residents in Oromia, where the Amhara are a minority group.
Abiy faces a challenge in getting all sides to agree to the terms of a November 2022 peace deal negotiated with Tigray. In Amhara, regional armed forces did not participate in the peace talks. “Amharas cannot be expected to abide by any outcome of a negotiations process from which they think they are excluded,” Tewodrose Tirfe, the chairman of the Amhara Association of America, said at the time.
Tunisia rejects IMF terms. Tunisian President Kais Saied has rejected the terms of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout needed to prevent economic collapse. Last October, Tunisia reached an agreement with the IMF for a $1.9 billion bailout, but the populist Saied’s disagreements with a powerful labor union—as well as concerns among donors that required structural reforms cannot be implemented—have delayed its ratification.
The IMF’s requirements include unpopular cuts to public sector wages and scrapping food and fuel subsidies. “The alternative is to count on ourselves,” Saied said last Thursday. But Tunisians are running out of necessities such as sugar and oil as the government struggles to pay for foreign imports and to fund itself. Since a July 2021 power grab, Saied has blamed Tunisia’s economic problems on corruption, interference from global powers, and foreigners.
This Week in Culture
Almost two millennia ago, Africa’s eastern coastline—including Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Somalia, and Tanzania—became key outposts along a lucrative trade route between Africa and India, China, and Persia. Scientists believe that modern Swahili culture emerged from this trade; according to new research published in Nature, Swahili people have a mix of African, Persian, and South Asian ancestry.
Scientists excavated cemeteries in Kenya and Tanzania to collect DNA from samples from people who lived between 1250 and 1800. In the medieval samples, they found that more than half of the DNA came from primarily female African ancestors, but a significant proportion also originated from Asian ancestors—including 80 to 90 percent from Persian male ancestors.
The genetic links corroborate traditional stories among Swahili people. According to these narratives, Persian sultans married local women, giving rise to Swahili culture. Beginning in the eighth century, Asian merchants traded cotton, pottery, and silks for African gold, ivory, and iron tools—along with enslaved people bound for Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Today, the Kiswahili language is primarily Bantu with many Arabic, Persian, and Hindi words.
Chart of the Week
Few African students can afford the $50,000-plus sticker price for U.S. universities, which have not focused on recruiting on the continent as much as British universities have. As shown below, China remains the top country sending foreign students to both the United States and the United Kingdom—although the Nigerian student cohort in British universities is growing rapidly.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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• Why India Downplays China’s Border Threat by Happymon Jacob
What We’re Reading
Is Malawi’s big grant a scam? In amaBhungane, Suzgo Chitete investigates Bridgin, a private foundation registered in Belgium that is working with Malawi’s government to bankroll the country’s development goals. Last November, Malawi signed on to a $6.8 billion grant from Bridgin—worth nearly 60 percent of the country’s GDP—for projects including a power plant and a hospital.
There are few official records on the foundation. According to amaBhungane, Bridgin was established in 2014 but has never filed annual financial records with Belgian authorities, a legal requirement; its official address is a rented workspace. Bridgin expects to fully recoup the grant, and the contract includes a purchase agreement that would force Malawi’s government to purchase any electricity produced at the new power plant.
Such take-or-pay contracts have previously harmed other countries, such as Ghana, where the government pays more than $500 million a year for unused electricity.
Uganda’s urban politics. In Foreign Policy, Liam Taylor writes that Africa’s growing urban populations are increasingly driving political uprisings, rather than the rural populations once seen as a power base. He focuses on Uganda, comparing its capital to other African cities such as Luanda, Angola, and Dakar, Senegal.
Almost four decades ago, a rural insurrection ushered in long-ruling Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, but today “access to information is freer, making Kampala a crucible for opposition politics,” Taylor writes.
Update, April 13, 2023: While the International Finance Corp. has stopped funding Bridge, it is an indirect investor. This article has also been updated to note that although government schools in Nigeria do not charge tuition fees, there are other costs associated with a student’s enrollment. This article has also been updated to note that Bridge was founded by two Americans. It is headquartered in Nairobi.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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