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China is now one of the most – if not the most – technologically advanced countries in the world, thanks to the global precedent it has set when it comes to the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).

From being the first country that manufactured 5G phones through Huawei to becoming the second country to land on Mars with its spacecraft, Zhurong, it’s no wonder African students are preferring to study in China and gain some of that knowledge that they can use back home for the betterment of the African continent.

With Mandarin being the major dialect in China, one would have thought it would deter prospective African students from studying in China, but that has not been the case due to the eagerness to tap into its technocratic educational realm.

Some African countries have even adjusted their educational systems by including Mandarin in their curriculums to prepare any students who are vying to study in China.

The Chinese government has, in recent years, partnered with various African governments to offer scholarships to aspiring students. Regardless, some parents and guardians take it upon themselves to finance their children’s tertiary education, which is not that expensive when compared to other countries’ universities that offer similar programs.

In most cases, African students who are studying in China tend to come back home when they are finished with their tertiary education, or once per year, due to the cost of the air tickets. Nevertheless, they remain resolute with some getting part-time jobs to augment their allowances.

I wanted to know more about why African students are choosing to study in China so I spoke to Dr. Christopher Allsobrook, the Director of the Centre for Leadership Ethics at Fort Hare University in South Africa, and Dr. Takavafira Zhou, a former lecturer and president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe as well as an environmentalist.

“Are they really? Prefer to what? Certainly they are more African students in China than a few decades ago and this reflects the rise of the Chinese economy and its interest in the resources and markets of the African continent to help secure this rise. African students are closer to Africa and so they are pursuing opportunities from these closer relationships, just as they seek opportunities in Europe and America, given relative under-development in Africa and weak institutions at home.

“However, African states will keep more of their most capable students if they invest in improving their universities in training strong independent critical academic professionals, rooted in local knowledge and history and culture. Moreover, we actually have seen what you describe, but Chinese primary interest is their own development and this will always involve the sacrifice of our own interests and businesses in their favor without strong regulatory framework and enforcement,” said Dr. Allsobrook.

Dr. Zhou also shared the same sentiment, citing China’s growing economy, which is now the fastest in the world, as one of the major reasons African students are choosing to study in China.

“China has the fastest-growing economy in the 21st century based on blending educational theory and practical experience as well as technological innovation and life serving skills.

“However, African universities can certainly use research to inform policies and decision making in their respective countries, but such a paradigm shift also needs political will as the Big Man syndrome, once fashionable in Africa but no longer tenable, seems to be totally divorced from making political, economic and social decisions informed by research and collective responsibility.

“Moreover, it’s not merely knowledge that leads to industrialisation but planning, tapping and harnessing human and natural resources to foster industrialisation that matters. Sadly, leaders in Africa are not guided by research, let alone a shared vision between the rulers and subject people. Without that shared vision and effective utilisation of human and natural resources for development industrialisation remains a pipe dream. Worse still, many African countries have become markets for Chinese products, thereby flooding local markets and stifling industrialisation in Africa. African countries have continued to develop enjoying the worst of the two worlds as consumers of Chinese goods and producers of raw materials.

“Nevertheless, African universities are producing graduates that can foster development in Africa. However, there is need to invest more on research, science and technology and a skills revolution that can enable graduates to function beyond the lecture rooms. There is also a need for broad national and continental planning to share and utilise research from universities for policy planning and decision making. There seems to be a mismatch between policy formulation, implementation and research findings. Research must foster corporate governance, punctuated by accountability, transparency, efficiency, frugality, thrift, justice and equity. Local processing and greater beneficiation must be promoted, while capital flight must be closed,” said Dr. Zhou.

It is clear that what is attracting prospective African students is the manner in which China has managed to change its economic status within the last two decades. The Chinese government has invested billions of dollars in its education system with the 4IR now part of every educational cluster and this is amongst the major reasons it has now become one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

China has become a power house in retail, automobiles, telecommunications, spacecraft and social media amongst other innovations and is now globally renowned for brands such as Alibaba, Huawei, GWM, Zhurong, TikTok and WeChat amongst others.

Nevertheless, as much as many African students study in China, that knowledge can be put to good use, as Africa is lagging behind in many global sectors and relies on third parties to achieve their endeavours.

For instance, when it comes to the issues of Covid-19, one would have thought that, by now, Africa would have been the one setting a precedent in acquiring the prognosis of the virus, considering the viruses and disease outbreaks that the continent has endured over the past decades. However, unfortunately that’s not the case and, as a result, the continent has vaccinated less than three percent of its entire population, relying on third parties to provide it with vaccines. Even Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is something that most African countries are still struggling to get hold of, despite it being something that local universities and technical colleges are capable of producing.

All eyes are now on those students who are studying in China to come back with innovative ideas that can help in the advancement of the African continent and coax it from the breast of the developed countries and its former colonizers.

Image credit: Li Yang

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