African students go abroad, but hesitate to come to the Netherlands

PIE-seminar-1African students wanting to study abroad don’t want to study in the Netherlands. This was the core message of my keynote lecture at a seminar organized by the Platform International Education and the Dutch Higher Education Network for International marketing. Here you’ll find more info about the seminar: For the first time, the seminar brought together ‘capacity development experts’ from Dutch universities and other centres for higher education with marketeers wanting to sell the Netherlands as an attractive destination for students from abroad. The language of development assistance and subsidies merged with the language of profit, pride and rich parents paying for their children’s education abroad as so-called self-paying students. The PIE-seminar-2marketeers have gained a great deal of experience about Asia, and – like so many others – they are now discovering Africa. A number of them were aware of the thought-provoking talk I gave in Brussels, in December 2013, at a conference organized by the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA).

Let’s examine some data. Harvard’s assessment of the higher education situation in Africa shows that in 2007, there were about 3 million higher education students in Africa as a whole. This amounts to about 5% of the age cohort. Higher education in Africa is currently demonstrating the most rapid growth of student numbers anywhere in the world. Taking into account Harvard’s assumed annual growth of 15% per annum, we can be certain that there are now many more than 3 million students in higher education on the continent. According to UNESCO, in 2012 there were 380,000 African students studying abroad. It is interesting to note where they were studying: the majority were in France (115,000), followed by South Africa (44,000), the UK (35,000), the US (34,000), Germany (15,000), Malaysia (15,000), Morocco (7,500), Angola (6,500), Russia (6,400), Brazil (4,600), Portugal (4,000), Saudi Arabia (3,000), Belgium (2,800), Ghana (2,100), India (2,000) and the Netherlands (1,200). So what do these figures tell us about the Netherlands?

To judge a country’s success in terms of attracting African students, we must look to the number of African students per million inhabitants in the host country. For the Netherlands, with a population of almost 17 million, 1,200 African students gives a score of 71 per million. This is very low! Compare it with France (with a score of 1741, twenty-five times better), South Africa (846/million), the UK (536/million), Malaysia (517/million), Portugal (376/million), Angola (361/million), Belgium (248/million, more than three times better), Morocco (234/million), Germany (183/million, more than twice the Dutch score), the US (105/million), Saudi Arabia (103/million), and Ghana (84/million).

So, before starting a big marketing campaign to attract more African students to come to the Netherlands it is important to listen not only to the opinions of those who have already come here but also to those students who have gone abroad but did NOT choose the Netherlands. I haven’t done that type of marketing research, but I can make a bold but educated guess as to the outcome.

Why don’t African students choose for the Netherlands?

  • The Netherlands does not have a colonial past in Africa and, unlike France, the UK, Belgium, and Portugal, who still maintain some of their colonial recruitment ties (and lavish subsidies in some cases), the African diaspora in the Netherlands is small and very few of them work as university lecturers/researchers.
  • The Netherlands’ higher education sector has become much too expensive for non-EU citizens. There are no longer generous subsidy programmes or easy possibilities for part-time work for students from abroad, e.g. as student assistants, or a generous private sector support programme (as in the US).
  • There is strong price competition from France, Germany and Belgium, and the attractiveness of higher education for students from abroad has improved a lot recently (e.g. a growing number of courses in English in Germany and Belgium).
  • There is strong marketing competition from the UK, which has maintained its generous subsidy programmes, but has also become a preferred country for self-paying students, despite the fees that are often higher than in the Netherlands.
  • Attitudes and visa practices at Dutch Embassies in Africa tend to be unwelcoming and off-putting. Students and their parents or other sponsors often feel humiliated.
  • Dutch universities and the wider Dutch population are not very welcoming to students from abroad (in terms of housing, specific support, earning possibilities).
  • Alumni policies and practices are generally very weak and there is a lack of NL branding. All Dutch universities and universities for applied studies as well as other centres for higher learning (such as KIT, MDF, MSM and others) are competing with each other.
  • There is not an effective utilization of the goodwill created from generous Dutch support for capacity building and development assistance. The Dutch private sector abroad does not adopt the role of goodwill ambassadors and Dutch embassies have not always been very helpful. Indeed, the Netherlands’ good name has recently been destroyed in many African countries due to clumsiness (the Netherlands is not very good at ending institutional arrangements – e.g. embassies, or support programmes – in a decent and respectful manner).

I believe we should reflect upon and learn from this at the ASC, particularly in terms of our role in the Research Master’s and Master’s programmes in African Studies, neither of which is attracting the number of African students we would really like to see!