Africa is too often seen through a negative lens. At the moment, the continent is making news in Australia for Ebola more than anything else.
There is, however, another narrative: one of Africa as a land of opportunity. The Economist ran one of its front pages in 2013 on “Africa Rising: the hopeful continent“. Precisely because many countries are coming from a low base, today’s Africa is one of the highest growing regions with six of the top ten fastest-growing economies.
So you may not be surprised to hear that trade between Australia and Africa doubled between 2009 and 2013. Clearly there are opportunities in mining and resources.
What is interesting is the sector that is projected to be the next big growth area for trade: international education. The Africa Australia Association’s 3rd International Conference last week focused on opportunities in international education as a key area for doing business in Africa.
Scott Ryan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, sees this as the coincidence of two trends: a growing African middle class and large youth demographic. He wants Australia to benefit from this situation.
At the moment, there are approximately 9,000 African students studying in Australia, including from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda. Australian universities are setting up student exchanges, research partnerships and leadership development with African universities. Some higher education providers are expanding their offerings in Africa: not just Monash University’s campus in South Africa but also models such as online delivery, licencing of curriculum, joint degrees and twinning programs.
Earlier this month the Commonwealth Government gave its response to the International Education Advisory Council report on the future of international education. A National Strategy for International Education is to be released for public consultation.
There are clear benefits for Australia in increasing this trade. International education is now the 4th largest export industry for Australia and, for Victoria, the largest export industry. Rebecca Hall of the Victorian Department of State Development, Business and Innovation makes clear what a focus the state has on international education as a key industry and on ensuring that the student experience in Australia is a positive one. On this front, initiatives like the Study Melbourne Student Centre are very welcome. There is also a role to engage industry and the African diaspora with 300,000 Africans now living in Australia.
At the same time, there are potentially great benefits for Africa. Former Zimbabwean Ambassador to Australia Jacqueline Zwambila noted at the conference that the positive vision of Africa as a prosperous continent driven by a knowledge industry has been frustrated by a long-standing underinvestment in education. With a few exceptions, the tertiary level of education in Africa is weak and is failing to meet labour market needs or reach out to under-served groups such as women and rural students. Australian expertise can be part of the solution. The issue will be the fit between what Australian education can provide and the continent’s needs.
Quite apart from the trade benefits, international education is an industry that has huge potential to increase cross-cultural understanding – and create a much more positive sense of Africa among Australians. So perhaps we will think of more than just Ebola when we think of the continent of opportunity.
Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the AIIA.