Interview: Mark E Smith
What combination of factors is driving expansion of international universities in Africa?
MARK E SMITH: If you look at the high-level signs, economic and overall development within the African continent is clearly on the rise. There are some bumps in various national economies, but overall the medium-term trajectory is heading upwards. One sees mixed economies, rather than concentrating purely on the primary sector. A natural consequence of that is the need for a more skilled workforce to continue that momentum. More people need to be trained to degree level. Secondly, if you look at the demographics, particularly the socioeconomic demographics, it is clear that in many of these countries the knock-on effect of that economic growth is a growing middle class, which has an insatiable appetite for education for its children.
We scored potential markets for our expansion based on a number of factors, including stability of the political and economic systems, and Ghana scores very strongly compared to its local neighbours. The fact that it is an English system and English-speaking country also makes it a sensible base. It’s not that the other places are unattractive; it is just that Ghana is more attractive.
The whole philosophy behind this is that there is clearly a large appetite for UK education. However, many potential students find the cost of a British university in the UK to be prohibitive. By bringing that UK education to a given country you make it more affordable and accessible to a wider range of people.
How can a host country encourage long-term foreign investments in the education sector?
SMITH: There are two factors, one quantifiable and one more intangible. The clear-cut factor is that the regulatory environment must be transparent, with clarity surrounding what needs to be done to establish such an organisation. Thus far in Ghana we find a very clear, well-structured regulatory environment that has its complexities but is straightforward to deal with. The second thing is the general political encouragement of the diversification of the higher education sector. Again, our experience in Ghana is positive; clear signals have been sent that the country is interested in broadening the system and providing more competition.
What profitability challenges await a foreign investor in the educations sector in West Africa?
SMITH: If you look at the context of a British university in the UK, we fall under the Charities Act, which means we have to be financially sustainable but our motive isn’t to maximise profit to shareholders; rather, our motive is to maximise the educational experience. One could then look at offshore campuses from two main angles: maximising income or extending its charitable status back home in the UK. We have taken the latter view. So, why Ghana? Firstly, it is incumbent on all organisations to diversify and spread risk. This is in itself a worthy reason. Secondly, it is very important that universities be seen as socially responsible in everything they do, and that includes education of people outside of their home country. We could run other models to allow us to be more profitable, but this model has the added benefit of playing a larger societal role. Of course we make money; we wouldn’t do something that isn’t sustainable, but this isn’t our key driver.
In a developing country how can universities balance vocational and academic curricula?
SMITH: In any economy the changing requirements of professions present challenges to tertiary education. Embedding the right skills in the curriculum so that it is academically rigorous but also relevant for society is very important. All good universities must regularly review how up-to-date their academic content is. It varies from one discipline to another. For example, it is very useful to have business modules taught by practitioners. Academic input and practitioner input side-by-side is very important to the academic experience. It is key to be able to have that discussion on a regular basis to ensure that staff continues to be challenged.
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