Cara Skikne

Beyond China: student recruitment across Africa


With the recent events disrupting student mobility universities started rethinking their recruitment strategies. The outbreak of COVID-19 raised questions like: how will the coronavirus affect student recruitment? How is the virus changing student mobility? 

While it is too early to have a definitive answer, the time is ripe for finding new countries for student recruitment and develop a portfolio of source countries to minimise risk. You might want to go beyond China to other emerging Asian markets. Or you might want to move into the market for recruitment with the largest potential in terms of demographics: Africa. According to the UN, in ten years 42% of the world’s youth aged 15-24 will live in Africa.  

Universities with a recruitment strategy for Africa will be ahead of the competition for tapping into this next source of students. However, universities will have to focus recruitment on a shortlist of sending countries. To help out, we decided to take a look at a selection of the most promising recruitment countries: this article is on African opportunities for recruitment, but we already covered Asian opportunities, and you can soon join a webinar on international student recruitment. 


Ghana has a population of more than 30 million people, with about 57%  of the population being under 25 years old. Ghana’s tertiary age population makes up about 9.4% of the entire population whereas the gross tertiary enrolment rate was considerably low with only 15.7% in 2018. 

For the past years, Ghana’s economy has been one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and its growth is anticipated to continue. In 2019, Ghana’s real GDP grew by about 7.1%

In comparison to other sub-Saharan African countries, Ghana’s education system is in good condition, however, the country is struggling in providing inclusive and high-quality education to the youth population which is on a rapid growth path. Nevertheless, the rapid population growth, positive economic development, scholarships, as well as the increasing demand for higher education are incentives and for Ghanaian students to choose a study abroad. Their beneficial fluency in English is also a push factor for a study abroad. Furthermore, there are limited study slots at Ghanaian public universities; only 20% of all university applicants are getting the chance to study in Ghana (ICEF Insights, 2020). 

Given the lack of job opportunities in Ghana, many Ghanaian consider post-graduate work and immigration policies in their destination countries. According to a Pew Research Centre survey, three-quarters of all Ghanaian respondents would emigrate if they had “the means and opportunity” (Recruiting in Uncertain Times, p.55). 

There are currently 14,622 Ghanaian students overseas. Among the top destinations are the US, the UK and Ukraine. Based on our data, Ghanaian students seem highly interested in studying Germany, Canada, the US and the UK. Germany (5.08) and Canada (1.90) have the highest market potential. Ghanaian students were mostly interested in Business & Management programmes as well as Social Sciences and Computer & IT programs. 


Over the past decade, the number of Egyptian students studying overseas has almost tripled, from 12,300 in 2008 to more than 32,000 today, and this growth is predicted to continue (ICEF Insights, 2020). Egypt’s tertiary aged population consists of more than 8 million people, however, the gross enrolment rate in tertiary education is only 35.16%

WENR describes Egypt’s current higher education system as inefficient, underfunded and due to Egypt’s population growth, overcrowded. In World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the skillset of Egyptian graduates was ranked 133rd among 141 countries, suggesting that Egyptian universities do not provide their students the necessary curricula to meet current labour market needs.  

To tackle the higher education crisis, the Egyptian government passed legislation which allows international branch campuses to work in the country (Recruiting in Uncertain Times, p. 54). Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are major employment sources in Egypt. Therefore, there is a high demand for study programmes such as entrepreneurship and innovation (ICEF Insights, 2020). 

The country has sent more than 34,000 students abroad in 2017; the majority studied in the United Arab Emirates (16%), Saudi Arabia (13%) and the US (11%). Based on our data from 2019, Computer Sciences is by far the most interesting sub-discipline for Egyptians, followed by General Engineering & Technology and Civil Engineering & Construction. 


Nigeria is predicted to experience a strong tertiary-aged population growth of 6.3 million within the next decade (British Council Education Intelligence, 2014). 

Like in Ghana, only a small percentage of all applicants (less than 20%) gain admission for studying at a higher education institution which leaves approximately 6.3 million qualified students without a place to study (ICEF Insights, 2020).  

The idea to start a new life in another country is something that a lot of middle-class families in Nigeria have in common. Therefore, prospective Nigerian students strongly consider immigration opportunities in the relevant destination countries (Recruiting in Uncertain Times, p. 59).  

Although there is a high demand for skilled graduates within Nigeria’s labour market, many families still see practical education as more valuable and fitting than vocational education.  

To successfully recruit Nigerians, the branding of vocational education should be able to fight it its stigma. Moreover, Nigerians consider destinations where their visa applications are likely to be accepted (Recruiting in Uncertain Times, p. 59). 

There are currently 85,251 Nigerian students abroad; the most popular places are the UK, followed by the US and Malaysia.  Based on our data, Nigerian students appear to be highly interested in studying in Canada, Germany, and the UK. In terms of study interest, our data shows that for 2019 Nigerian students were highly interested in Computer Sciences, Management, Organisation & Leadership as well as Public Health, General Engineering & Technology and Health Sciences.  

South Africa 

South Africa has a population of about 59 million people and is predicted to reach 64 million by 2030. Around 8.46% of the entire population makes up the tertiary-aged population, presenting many prospective international students, with a gross enrolment rate of  22.37% in 2017

According to UNESCO UIS, there are 8,068 South African students studying overseas, representing only 0.16% of the country’s tertiary-aged population. Approximately 48% of all South African students overseas chose an English-speaking study destination, including the US, the UK and Australia.  

The CIA’s World Factbook describes South Africa as ‘a middle-income emerging market with an abundant supply of natural resources; well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy, and transport sectors; and a stock exchange that is Africa’s largest and among the top 20 in the world‘. 

When it comes to study interests, South African students are primarily interested in Medicine & Health, Social Sciences and Business & Management programs. Among these disciplines, Medicine & Health shows the greatest market opportunity with 1.82. 

African countries have a tremendous demographic potential and establishing a beachhead in any of these can secure student recruitment in the long run. However, the continent’s rising middle class is still limited both in size and in purchasing power and it is important to consider having financial support for new students (e.g. scholarships) as well as nurturing applications for student visas. 

Moreover, getting into the African student market before other players can provide a head start in recruitment. This is already the case for some rising players in international higher education with Chinese universities actively targeting the African market

In summary, Africa is a young and growing continent with a large mass of students and virtually no competition from local institutions. Expanding your portfolio of sending countries can mitigate the risk of unexpected events and African countries can be great candidates for diversification. 


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