What will happen to our elite students? (By Gado Alzouma)

Competition between the world’s major powers to attract international students has intensified in recent years and has led to greater academic mobility. In 2019, UNESCO estimated that more than 5,500,000 students were educated outside their national borders. The United States is the top host country with over 1 million students, followed by countries like China, France, Australia, UK, Canada, etc. New destination countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco or even, on a sub-regional scale, Ghana or Senegal, are also in the process of capturing an increasing share of this market. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down this phenomenon considerably, there is every indication that it is expected to pick up again in the coming years.

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Two important facts explain this trend towards increasing student mobility and internationalization of higher education: the increasing weight of university rankings on a global scale and the place of English in global education systems. These are the rankings that guide the choices of the best students, but also those of the richest students on all continents. For example, the leaders of all academic institutions around the world eagerly await the publication of theWorld Universities Academic Rankings from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, World Universities Ranking from Times Higher Education, from QS (Quaquarelli Symonds) World Universities Rankingand others, such asUS News Best Global Universities Rankings, and so forth. English has become the essential language of science and research and an important selection criterion for accessing the most prestigious and often the most lucrative jobs.

The influence exerted by these two factors of attractiveness and evaluation of university performance is such that some countries have had to adapt the organization of their higher education institutions in order to meet the criteria developed by the authors of these rankings, and their universities there in the first place. top level. In France, this is the case for the Université Paris-Saclay (from 42nd in 2018 to 13th in 2021), Paris Sciences et Lettres (300th in 2018 and 36th this year) and the Institut Polytechnique de Paris, all of which are now part of the top 50 universities in the world thanks to their recent restructuring. Today, in all French grandes écoles, the programs designed to attract the best international students and to overcome the problems caused by the illegibility abroad of the French system of preparatory classes are taught partly or completely in English .

However, the above two factors alone are not sufficient to explain these developments. They must be placed in a context of increasing internationalization and commercialization of higher education, which is a source of economic benefits, international prestige, political and cultural influence and a highly skilled workforce for countries increasingly confronted with the accelerated aging of their populations and the transformations affecting contemporary societies, in particular the general digitization of all sectors of activity, the increasing technological development of jobs and the advent of what some now call the 4th industrial revolution, including the unprecedented development of artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology and renewable energy sources.

This is how high-tech companies in the US. the most powerful in Silicon Valley (Google, Apple, Facebook, Oracle, Intel, etc.), the largest investment banks (Goldman Sachs, JMorgan, Morgan Stanley, UBS, etc.), advisory and strategy firms the most reputable (Deloitte, McKinsey, EY, PwC, etc.) and the US government in all its breakup draw on this pool of hundreds of thousands of engineers and experts in all fields. They are also one of the main sources of funding for higher education. They generate revenues of tens of billions of dollars a year and help maintain American technological and scientific competitiveness. The thousands of labs and research centers would not be able to function without them, as they make up over 55% of those enrolled in masters and doctoral degrees in mathematics, computer science, and engineering and sometimes over 80% in certain specific fields. Finally, it should be noted that they contribute greatly to changing the composition of the qualified population in the host countries. Sub-Saharan immigrants, for example, are among the most educated populations in the United States: in 2015, 69% of people over 25 said they had at least some level of college education and 40% had a degree. a bachelor’s degree. They were 49% in Great Britain and 30% in France respectively.

China, India, South Korea and to a lesser extent Vietnam or Brazil are the countries of origin of most international students, but new trends have emerged in recent years with the rise of Africa and especially Nigeria, which now ranks on the 8th place stands in the world terms of student mobility and has become one of the major recruitment markets for American, English, Malaysian, Australian universities, etc. It is estimated that there are now more than 100,000 Nigerian students enrolled in these countries. Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, etc. also have tens of thousands of students abroad and the number is only growing.

According to Campus France, more than 404,000 African students continued their studies abroad in 2020. As early as 2010, while African students worldwide represented only 10% of the total number of mobile students, the number of mobile students compared to the total number of African students averaged 6%, the highest percentage in the world. In 2020, the mobility rate for African students was double the global average, with even higher rates for some countries. For example, UNESCO points out that in 2016, 10% of Cameroonian students studied outside their country, which is 5 times the world average. Even in a poor country like Niger, student mobility is now 7.5%, almost 4 times the world average.

This high mobility of African students is enhanced by the rise of the African middle class. Indeed, unlike the colonial period or even the first decades after independence, periods characterized by “a refusal of the school”8African families, especially urban and highly educated families and the wealthiest families, have now understood all the benefits they can derive from investing in schools or, better yet, investing in schools. the world and whose access on an international scale is fiercely competitive. So, for those of the elite students who are not rich enough, the national African and foreign governments are strongly participating in this desire for displacement by offering scholarships to the best among them. Thus, in Niger, every year the best graduates are offered scholarships from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, etc. thus promoting the prestige of their higher education and their economic, political and cultural influence in our countries.

It is as if African governments are tacitly admitting the bankruptcy of African universities and colleges, the fact that the best higher education institutions are found elsewhere than in Africa and that the best African students should not study in Africa. However, it is a fundamental anomaly that everyone seems to take for granted if one does not celebrate African excellence through prestigious foreign institutions to which these students have access. The centers of excellence created here and there often even have the stated goal of placing the greatest number of brilliant African students at Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Polytechnique Paris or Cambridge or Oxford. These students may not always be smart enough, but nevertheless, they are often accepted by institutions like Harvard, which follow the principle of: legacy by hiring candidates whose grades are not sufficient, but who are children of major political figures, major donors, or alumni (sons of former Hravard students), thereby increasing the international recognition of the school and the influence of the United States in their country simply to their family tree. (NB Contrary to popular belief, students admitted to Harvard are not always, from an academic standpoint, “the best” confirmed athletes).

All this shows that the international mobility of students has become one of the main themes in the cultural, economic and political competition between the great nations, as they thus not only give themselves the means to attract highly qualified labor force almost free of charge, the initial training in which they did not participate, but they also increase their own prestige and their own influence on our countries, while giving themselves the means to remain technologically and scientifically competitive by welcoming the brightest minds for whom generous scholarships and lucrative and prestigious jobs are offered upon graduation.

Although Africa has been a source of slave labor for centuries, many of its best knowledge workers now seem to be following the same path as their ancestors, this time volunteering their services to Western countries. While we should welcome the fact that they are often part of the global elite today, we should not forget that only a small minority are returning, thus contributing to widening the gap between us and the developed countries. Who are they responsible for this? To me, only African governments, which are unable to provide their young people with competitive higher education institutions, are to blame. For without a good dose of hypocrisy, students and their parents cannot be blamed for offering their offspring the best chance of success in life when they can. Nor can we blame Western countries for seizing opportunities when they arise in a world where you have to bend your elbows to move forward. It’s just fair game. If we are willing to offer them the best of our children, educated at our expense and at the cost of a thousand sacrifices, almost free, then they are takers.

Gado Alzouma, ordinary university professor

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