China increases scholarships to students from Sub-Saharan Africa


China has increased the total scholarships – new and ongoing for students in Sub-Saharan Africa  for the 2019-22 sessions to 50,000 according to the  United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report.

This is an increase of 20,000 on the number of scholarships that were made available in the preceding three years. It represents an additional 5,000 scholarships a year.

China is the largest single provider of university scholarships to students from Sub-Saharan Africa, awarding about 12,000 from a total of 30,000 bursaries that were distributed by the top 50 global donors.

China provides 40% of all university scholarships for Sub-Saharan African students,  followed by South Africa, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Egypt, India, Germany and Japan, according to this year’s report, titled Inclusion and Education: All means all.

This suggests that Chinese so-called stadium construction diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa could be giving way to the soft-power strategy of granting a growing number of scholarships to African university students, government officials and ruling party cadres – and confirming China as one of the most dominant foreign powers on the continent.

Although aid for scholarships in Sub-Saharan Africa had been stagnant since 2000, China’s ongoing interest in the region has resulted in an increase in financial support for African international students since 2010. According to World Education Services, an organisation verifying credentials, some 30,000 Africans received scholarships between 2012 and 2015 and Beijing promised additional support.

University World News reports that to maintain a presence in the region, Germany, through DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, increased its scholarships to the region by 900 between 2014 and 2017, while, two years ago, the British government pledged a further 100 scholarships annually through its Chevening programme. In 2015, India also announced it was awarding 50,000 scholarships to students in Africa over the next five years.

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But UNESCO has voiced concerns that most of those scholarships are not inclusive since they fail to reach students who are marginalised and at risk of socio-economic exclusion. Whereas only 6% of the poorest 20% in Sub-Saharan Africa complete upper secondary education, the current scholarship environment does not indicate how many students in this category are beneficiaries.

According to the report, most of the providers could not produce detailed background information as to whether recipients had rural backgrounds or a disability. In retrospect, whereas smaller providers, such as the World Bank, the African Union, the EU Erasmus, DAAD and KfW Development Bank have launched inclusive scholarships, most of the large providers have no such programmes.

The providers tracked programme completion success rate at 85%, this trend contrasts sharply with low undergraduate and postgraduate completion rates in universities in Sub-Saharan Africa. “In the absence of student background information, high rates of success may reflect privileged backgrounds,” says UNESCO.

There are also questions as to whether those scholarships have been fuelling a brain drain from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, as most providers had student return rates of 25% to 45%. According to the report, scholarship providers operating in South Africa generally had good information and reported 90% student success rates when it came to graduates finding quality jobs. “Information outside South Africa was much sparser,” noted the report.

But what is still worrisome is whether the scholarships awarded to students in Sub-Saharan Africa can help countries improve sustainable development, or enhance the quality of higher education. So far, 56% of scholarships for Sub-Saharan African students are for undergraduate study and only a fraction of the recipients return to their countries of origin.