China overtakes Western government’s African university scholarships

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The Chinese government offers more university scholarships to African students than the main Western governments combined, a sign of Beijing’s use of “soft power” alongside economic investment.

Directory Global Education Monitoring Report produced by Unesco showed that China was set to offer 12,000 scholarships to African students over the next academic year, largely to support studies at Chinese universities.

South Africa and Russia are also offering thousands of scholarships to African students, according to data collected before the coronavirus pandemic hit, while India and Turkey are offering increasing numbers.

The UK government offers around 1,100 annual scholarships to African students, primarily through the Chevening scholarships, while the German and French governments offer around 600 each and European programs over 300 others. Other European and Western governments offer less support.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said the trend reflected China’s efforts in soft diplomacy linked to its “Belt and Road” development strategy that brought it about. to inject billions of dollars into infrastructure projects around the world, including in Africa.

“China’s aid is region specific and tends to be defined by the Belt and Road,” he said. “A hallmark of Chinese policy, compared to the UK, is long-term continuity. ”

In the UK, he said there was a tendency to “shift politics from one budget to another and more so if there is a change of government.” But it can be expected that China will continue to increase scholarships for African students for many years to come. “

The UK, France, Germany and other Western donors tend to spend most of their education aid budgets supporting projects for school-aged children. Unesco data covers official programs supported by the government and not the support of individual universities.

Two business-backed vendors also have a strong presence in supporting African students. ABSA, the bank, and the Mastercard Foundation, the charitable arm of the payments group, are among the major providers of college scholarships.

China funds a global network of Confucius Institutes at universities, especially in Africa, as well as other initiatives to promote language learning and exchange. The Confucius program has been criticized in the United States for monitoring students and the perception that it restricts academic freedoms.

Unesco’s analysis highlights that most scholarships are used to fund university places in donor countries rather than providing students with places in African universities, which would help strengthen institutions.

He also points out that while scholarship providers typically check whether grantees complete their courses, most share little information about the criteria and often do not include verifiable metrics or aim to recruit people from across the board. disadvantaged areas.

To address this, observers have called for scholarships to be modified in order to improve the social mobility of talented African students and develop the continent’s education system.

Patrick Dunne, President of Education Sub-Saharan Africa, a charity supporting higher education on the continent, which helped analyze the data, said: “The game has to change the way people think about scholarships. We could get what we paid for. If we focus a lot more on the impact, there will be more money going into the scholarships and we will be able to see the return. “

He called for a more systematic system to connect eligible students who need it most with scholarships to give them access to better educational opportunities.

Kenneth King, professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that while China’s policy is to use soft power to build long-term influence, its universities “don’t spend a lot of time keeping in touch. with the people who went there ”. He contrasted this approach with the significant fundraising efforts at Western universities to cultivate alumni networks.

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