UNICAF: Universit-E – how Africa is getting educated

By Jennifer Thomas

African countries cannot keep up with the demand for higher education places. With increasing numbers of students unable to enroll in their home countries, and facing difficulties obtaining visas to study in Europe, distance learning is experiencing a boom on the continent. At the forefront of a new kind of ‘blended learning’ experience, which marries both online and on-ground approaches and online educational platform UNICAF is seizing the initiative to offer Africa’s students alternative pathways to achieve their career goals.

UNICAF’s CEO Dr Nicos Nicolaou believes the spectre of Brexit has had an effect on the opportunities available to African students. “Students in Africa are looking for quality,” he says. “This is why so many of them were aiming to study overseas but, in the last couple of years, and with Brexit, visa issues have become increasingly tough and costs have become prohibitive. It means we can provide a great alternative for them: high quality degrees with international recognition at a very low cost. European universities and educational institutions are facing huge problems with this and that’s why what we do is a solution for them to take the education to the student.”

The issue of access is a very real problem for African students. At UNICAF’s recent conference in London, 250 students applied for visas to attend but only 70 were successful and able to take part. There are also barriers to entry in their home countries.

So how does UNICAF meet the needs of its students from a diverse range of backgrounds and locations across a continent that can still struggle to provide even a reliable electricity supply, let alone a consistent internet connection? “We have a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) designed by our in-house software development team,” explains Nicolaou. “It’s configured in a way that’s easy to navigate using one button and accessible by mobile devices, because 75% of our students are accessing our systems this way. We also allow them to download the content so they can get what they need for their off-line studies. This is crucial in Africa where we’ve also designed our VLE to work with a low bandwidth connection.”

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Reaching out

Nicloaou believes that UNICAF’s blended e-learning approach is what sets it apart from its competitors on the continent. Students have the opportunity to back up their virtual learning at on-ground facilities where they can access computer centres and digital libraries at generator-driven sites where electricity is available 24/7 to help them with their downloading. “Blended learning relates mostly to undergraduate studies,” he explains. “Initially, we targeted post-graduate students - working professionals with little time to attend locations. Undergraduates require some face-to-face tuition so we have incorporated material into our online portal where a local tutor can assist the student at our on-ground facilities. These face-to-face sessions are complementary to the online material and tutoring. It’s a new development. We’re now in nine countries and expanding our local operations rapidly across the continent.”

So what partnerships with educational institutions is UNICAF leveraging worldwide to deliver its educational programs? “Currently, we have students in partnership with Marymount California University, the University of Nicosia in Cyrpus, the University of South Wales in the UK and we have the UNICAF University in Malawi,” says Nicolaou. “We are also getting a lot of requests from other institutions, mainly in the UK and US, that are interested in the African market. We are examining if some of these are able to offer their courses through our platform in Africa so we can increase the choices available for students.”

UNICAF is a part of EdX (established in 1980) and offers a diverse range of courses with its MBA program the most popular and longest running. “We also have a number of post-graduate programs such as MSCs in psychology and education,” adds Nicolaou. “Then we have programs in computer science and are also offering new courses in the project management field. There is no limit to what you can do online, within reason. We have to look at costs and service to find out what is needed in terms of new programs for students. If there is a demand we can target that.”

UNICAF’s Vice-Chancellor Dr Kevin Andrews echoes this sentiment and is excited about the potential for growth on the platform. “It sounds like science fiction but if eye surgeons can perform an operation in one country while the patient is in another, clearly the portfolio of what can be taught online is limitless,” he says. “Technology is speeding up education, which begs the question: should it take three years to gain a degree? This is where UNICAF can offer a flexible and timely alternative.”

Investing in the future

To achieve its goals, UNICAF works with several investors including CDC Group, a development finance institution which is part of the UK government. “This alliance allows us to offer scholarships to students so they can pay a fraction of the fees,” says Nicolaou proudly. “An MBA in the UK would cost a minimum of £12,000 for an interational student plus accommodation, travel and living costs. We can offer this for just £3,000; a huge saving and students don’t have to leave their country, their jobs and their families. £35m has been invested so far.

Starting with just 15 students in 2012, UNICAF now helps educate over 11,000. “I’ve worked in education for over 30 years,” says Nicolaou. “At the University of Nicosia, traditionally we used to recruit international students from all over the world, which gave us the opportunity to visit Africa many times to give presentations, speak to governments, institutions and students. As it became increasingly difficult for students to enrol overseas we saw there was an opportunity to take this level of education to them.”

With plans to enrol 60,000 students by the year 2020, UNICAF’s scholarship program has helped to cut the cost of attending university for thousands of sub-Saharan students by up to 80%. Transforming higher education, it makes something that was out of reach for so many a viable option on a continent which boasts the fastest-growing middle-class in the world and accounts for nine of the 15 fastest-growing global economies. “If Africa is to maintain its lead, it’s imperative higher education becomes a more affordable option,” maintains Nicolaou. “We can enable the continent to create a strong, qualified workforce to meet the needs of a growing economy.”

Demand in increasing

The current state of higher education in Africa is falling short. For example, in Nigeria there are 1.7mn high school graduates, yet only 500,000 university places available to them. It’s a real problem, but UNICAF is well placed to solve it with its plans for expansion. It doesn’t just offer its own programs, it also helps institutions and governments use its VLE tech to offer online education to students through its public universities. “We are discussing an arrangement with the government in Rwanda,” says Nicolaou. “We are also offering the same type of collaboration with other countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Ghana. They have good infrastructure to deliver what we offer and there are large numbers of students who can benefit from our programs.”

“We have the experience, the know-how, the technology and the marketing capability,” asserts Nicolaou. “A lot of universities that want to recruit international students and go online find it hard to put together the resources to achieve this and to design the learning systems needed. Primarily this is something that has only been offered in the US at scale. But obviously systems designed for the US market are not designed to work in Africa. We are maybe the only ones to have done so successfully.”


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