Online Classrooms Look to Improve Higher Education Across Africa, but Face Skepticism

Emily Kamizi, right, at a market near her home in Lusaka, Zambia, is studying for an M.B.A. through Unicaf, whose courses are mostly online.
Credit Jason J Mulikita for The New York Times

Everywhere is a classroom for Emily Kamizi, even the buses in Lusaka, Zambia’s congested capital. It can take an hour or more to cross the city, so Ms. Kamizi puts on her headphones, turns up Taylor Swift and concentrates on her M.B.A. studies.

Ms. Kamizi, 25, is a student at Unicaf University, an African institution founded in 2012 with programs in fields like business, education and health care management. Offering degrees largely online, with some blended learning options, Unicaf reaches 18,000 students across the continent, many of them working adults.

Unicaf offers the convenience of anytime, anywhere study — as long as the internet service is sufficient. The cost of a degree, about $4,000, is not cheap by African standards, but it is within reach of the region’s growing middle class, and many students receive scholarships. Ms. Kamizi, a former safety worker in a mine, got a full ride after she won a Unicaf-sponsored business competition with an idea for manufacturing low-cost sanitary napkins.

As American colleges rush to recruit in China or to build campuses in Singapore, Africa may have the most important higher education story. Of the continent’s 1.2 billion people, 60 percent are under 25, and thanks to a broad campaign over the last several decades to improve elementary and secondary school participation rates, the number of high school graduates is higher than ever.

What’s more, as the economy diversifies, there is increasing demand for a more highly skilled work force.

The region’s universities, however, are not keeping pace. Less than 10 percent of college-age students in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in higher education, according to the World Bank. By contrast, in the wealthy member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the share is closer to 80 percent.

Africa’s longstanding public universities have wrestled with the pressure to expand capacity without sacrificing quality, and not always successfully, said Jamil Salmi, a higher education consultant and former World Bank official from Morocco. Such universities have grown up, but they vary in caliber and can be costly. Going abroad to study is an option for only a select few.

“All of these efforts on their own are not adequate,” said Peter Okebukola, president of the Global University Network for Innovationin Lagos, Nigeria, who has been involved with several efforts to expand online, or distance, education across Africa. “To improve access in Africa will require a multiplicity of ways.”

Could one of those be a Pan-African, Cyprus-based, mostly online university? Nicos Nicolaou, Unicaf’s founder, said he believes so, despite issues with internet access across Africa. The university gives every student a tablet, and course materials can be downloaded and accessed offline. Power failures, however, are common, and dependable internet is far from guaranteed.

But Mr. Nicolaou remains positive. He was born in northern Cyprus, and like many Cypriots, he studied overseas. Returning home, he wanted to play a part in rebuilding the country’s education system, which had been disrupted by civil war. A private college he helped start became the University of Nicosia. It was working there that first took him to Africa in 1989.

Initially, Unicaf was essentially a distance-learning platform, taking courses offered by British and American universities, translating them to an online environment and marketing them to Africans. Partner institutions set admissions standards, approve hiring and determine whether students meet graduation requirements.

Ariane Schauer is provost of Marymount California University, a small Catholic college outside Los Angeles. “It was very aligned with our mission of serving the underserved,” Ms. Schauer said of the decision to offer an M.B.A. through Unicaf.

Under a new president, Marymount has ended the relationship to concentrate on the home campus, but Ms. Schauer said the university, which awarded 150 degrees to African students over six years, was pleased with the partnership.

For universities it pairs with, Unicaf — which takes a share of tuition revenues, typically 20 to 35 percent — provides an entrance into a new market with reduced risk. But its financial model, which rests on volume, is not always an easy fit for western universities. A $60,000 M.B.A. program, which is commonplace in the United States, costs four years’ average salary in Nigeria, one of Africa’s wealthiest countries.

For some students, however, the ability to get an international degree is central to Unicaf’s appeal. Continue reading

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