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International Student Profile for the African Market (2020)

Africa is huge. With 56 countries and more than 1 billion people collectively, it is one of the most significant regions globally in terms of population. It is expected that African countries will be home to 25 percent of the world’s college-aged population by 2030.


However, more interestingly, from an international education perspective, according to a 2020 Campus France report, 4.5 percent of its 9.1 million students (400,000+) are outwardly mobile.  As the world average is 2.4 percent, that rate makes Africa home to the most mobile student population globally.


The same report also states that the rise in tertiary level students in the region is uneven. Higher education institutions (HEIs) and international student recruitment agents must know the international student profile for the African market to maximize their efforts in attracting the most students. HEIs and agents need to know their countries of origin, favored destinations, and motivations.


Key Takeaways:

  • A quarter of the world’s college-age population will be in Africa by 2030
  • The primary motivation of African international students is to advance their careers through education
  • Cost is the overriding concern of international students in Africa

Country of origin

A 2017 report by the World Education News + Reviews (WENR) states that 99 percent of mobile students in Africa come from French and English-speaking countries. It identified Nigeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Senegal, Angola, Ghana, and Sudan as the top 10 sending countries in the region. 


For 2020, Campus France reports similar findings, with Nigeria showing a 50 percent growth in the number of outwardly mobile students from 2012 to 2017, followed by Sudan, Angola, Ghana, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe in terms of development. The only new entrant to the list is Congo, which grew its outwardly mobile student population by 60 percent. 


Another study attributes this growth to a “youth bulge,” referring to the region’s large number of young people. The study tabulated the increase of mobile students (by volume) per country from 2018 to 2019, putting Nigeria in the lead with 13,423 students, followed by Ghana (3,661), Kenya (3,451), Ethiopia (2,061), and South Africa (2,042).

Favored destinations

So, where do international students from Africa go? Historically, France and the US were among the favored destinations up to 2017. However, the UIS data on tertiary student mobility for 2018 shows the preferred destination varies wildly depending on the country of origin. 

african students favourite study destinations bar graph
Source: UNESCO

As seen in the chart above, France does hold on to its dominance in some countries. However, it hardly makes a dent in Nigeria, the largest population in Africa with 201 million people, with 20 percent between the ages of 15 and 24 and a growing middle class. 


The most probable reason for this preference is that Nigerian students are English speakers, so they naturally favor the US, the UK, and Canada. Many people in Morocco, French Algeria, Cameroon, and Senegal speak French, which would explain the preference for France as a destination country.  


Institutions in Canada have a significant advantage in terms of language as they cater to both English and French speakers. However, language is not the only factor to consider when wooing African students. 

Student motivations

WENR states that more African students (30 percent) cite cost as the primary factor in the decision of students to study abroad (15 percent). The reason for this is practicality. 


The primary motivation for African students going abroad is to attain higher-level qualifications (71 percent). Forty-five percent cite career advancement, followed by fulfilling requirements for a specific profession (44 percent) and improving employment prospects (29 percent). 


African students have a far more pragmatic attitude towards international education than students from other countries, who often cite cultural experience and personal interest as significant factors in their decision to study abroad. Studying abroad is an expensive proposition, after all. African students place more importance on creating opportunities for advancement than the “college experience.”


Because of this, African students are less likely to choose countries outside the region if they had that option.  African students would prefer going to local or inter-region HEI, as evidenced by the example of Zimbabwe in the chart above, where most students applied to an HEI in South Africa. Many of them also chose to go to Ghana because these are closer and less expensive than going outside the region. 


However, 38,000 tertiary-level qualified applicants were unable to get into inter-regional HEIs in 2017 because there were just a few slots available. As a result, many students turn to other countries, but always with cost in mind.

The bottom line

Africa has much potential as an international education market for enterprising HEIs and agents. They need to emphasize the long-term value of their programs to convince African students that the programs are worth the investment. The African market might also be a good target for online-only and hybrid programs that carry lower price tags. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM #GlobalEducationForAll

MSM VP Global Suneetha Qureshi

MSM President-Global Marketing Office (GMO)

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As president of MSM GMO, she fortifies its business development outreach globally, particularly in the face of MSM’s foray in edtech-based recruitment via MSM Unify. She preserves the premium, value-adding services provided to each GMO partner institution, including dedicated teams on the ground, agent management, lead generation and inquiry management, application pre-screening, and student and parent support through pioneering pre-departure briefing sessions.


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.

Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.


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