Spain plans to recruit more students from Sub-Saharan Africa

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Nilov

Wachira Kigotho

Spain has embarked on an ambitious plan to attract international students and highly skilled workers from Africa as part of its new strategy, Focus Africa 2023, which aims to establish stronger academic, economic and diplomatic ties with African countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to ICEF Monitor, a market intelligence platform for international student recruitment and mobility trends, the Spanish government would like to join the United Kingdom, France and Germany as a destination of choice for international students from Africa.

Towards this goal, plans are under way to ease visa processes for international students and graduates. “The move will remedy some of the logistical challenges that international students face in pursuing degree studies in Spain,” said ICEF Monitor.

But, pending the proposed new university system legislation that will come into effect in 2023, the Spanish government intends to start granting residence permits to foreign students for the duration of their studies and to extend work rights for one to two years after graduation.

Quoting Dr Joan Subirats, the minister responsible for universities, ICEF Monitor said Spain is keen to retain international talent by allowing some of the graduates to develop their careers in the country.

In this context, Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to become one of Spain’s target areas for recruitment of international students and this will be one of the aspects that will define relations between Spain and African countries in the 21st century and beyond.

Africa may replace Asia as source of students

According to Subirats, the Spanish government hopes to encourage African outbound students to join universities in Spain and acquire skills that are not readily available in countries of origin.

Whereas, in the past, a significant number of international students in Spain were from North Africa, especially from Morocco, whose outbound students accounted for 3% of foreign students in Spain, in future, the focus will be on countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The new thinking about the higher education partnership between Spain and Africa is based on the premise that the continent probably will, in the near future, replace Asia as the main source of international students.

“The African continent will act as a market leader, following estimates that indicate that there will be many African students studying abroad by 2025,” stated a concept note on a seminar held mid-last year on academic cooperation between Spain and Africa.

Demand for HE in Africa growing

The emerging allure of Sub-Saharan Africa as a great potential market for outbound students is based on upward trends in tertiary education in the region.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, enrolment in tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past four decades had been growing much faster than in any other region in the world, albeit at comparatively low participation ratios.

Based on the fact that African student mobility rates are currently the highest worldwide, as well as the exponential demographic growth in the African continent, Spain is eager not to remain on the back foot when it comes to getting a share of the African mobility students.

“The African demand will continue to grow, not only because of the strain on local universities, but also because of the prestige of foreign qualifications,” stated the concept note.

China’s aggressive recruitment of African students, whose share stands at about 12% of China’s foreign students, also appears to be sparking a drive in recruitment of African students by countries that, in the past, had minimal interest in the continent’s outbound students.

Even then, Spain has been working hard to increase its share of foreign students, according to Dr Cristina Grasset, the director of Spain Education Programs, a lobby group that has been helping Spanish universities to eradicate barriers to internationalisation of higher education.

In a study ‘The Economic Impact of International Students in Spain’, Grasset identified language courses, masters and undergraduate degree programmes as some of Spain’s education exports.

In this regard, the number of foreign students in Spanish universities has been increasing steadily from 153,193 students in the 2015-16 academic year to 208,366 in 2019-20, according to statistics from ICEF Monitor, an increase of 7.2% each year.

But, over the years, the number of international students in Spain had been swelled by the Erasmus Mundus programme, a scheme that supports higher education students from the European Union to study in any of the 27 countries’ member states.

For instance, in 2019-20 academic year, 55,227 foreign students in Spain, that constituted about 27% of the entire outbound cohort, were in Erasmus and other European Union student mobility programmes.

Coupled with historical roots, the largest number of international students in Spain in the 2019-20 academic year were from Italy (21,441), Ecuador (16,758), France (16,509) and Colombia (16,460). In 2018-19, Morocco had 5,723 students registered in Spanish universities, the highest number from any one African country, while Egypt sent 564 students.

Scholarships may be offered

But, to recruit students from Sub-Saharan Africa, Spain is thinking of not just removing and easing travel barriers but also offering scholarships and other initiatives that will favour training, job market integration and the creation of opportunities in both regions.

According to universities minister Subirats, Spanish universities are being encouraged to establish linkages with their African counterparts, as well as promote joint research activities.

To enhance the process, during the initial stages of the proposed new engagement of Spain with Africa, the diplomatic thrust will be concentrated in 10 African countries that are considered to be strategic in the continent: Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

According to an umbrella policy, ‘III Plan Africa: Spain and Africa – challenge and opportunity’, that will be implemented through Focus Africa 2023, Spain sees an opportunity to help train Africa’s workforce. The continent is estimated to require between 15 million and 20 million jobs a year until 2035, and whereby 902 million jobs will have to be created by 2050.

If the proposed agenda were to become a reality, Spanish universities would increasingly become training avenues for African graduates in engineering, management and administration, languages, humanities, law and health sciences, which are some of the most sought-after fields of study by international students in Spain, according to ICEF.

According to the Third Plan Africa, although only a small number of institutions promote the Spanish language in Africa, there is an emerging interest in Spanish culture among young people in Africa. “The boom enjoyed by Spanish culture in many African countries is an excellent base on which to build solid relationships in all areas,” stated the report.

Spain also sees the proposed relationship as a way to curb unregulated migration of young people from Africa to Europe in search of new opportunities and thinks the time has come for regulated migration outcomes that could be of equal benefit to Africa and Europe.

The academic push is coming up when, over the past two decades, Spain and other Southern and Eastern European countries, such as Italy, Romania and Greece, had been affected by a brain drain.

“Graduates of Spanish universities and those other countries often leave to work in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany,” stated ICEF Monitor’s briefing issued on 21 June.

But, no matter the direction that the new academic partnership might take, African students who join Spanish universities would benefit from lower tuition fees and living expenses compared to their counterparts that may go for studies to France or the United Kingdom.

Eventually, opportunities for training at Spanish educational institutions, links with the business sector and internship chances in Europe could act as magnets to Africa’s outbound students.

Copyright: University World News

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