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Diversité des motivations de la formation et du retour d’étudiants africains de l’Université du Cap-Occidental

Differentials in educational motives and return among African students at the Western Cape University
Gabriel Tati
p. 73-96


L’artice offre une analyse critique des expériences vécues par les jeunes Africains originaires d’Afrique de l’Ouest et du Centre qui migrent en Afrique du Sud pour des études universitaires. Sont appréhendés les motifs pour le choix de l’Afrique du Sud comme destination, les tentatives antérieures de migrer au Nord, les éléments majeurs dans le choix d’une université en Afrique du sud et les projets de retour au pays après les études. Sur la base d’une enquête menée auprès des étudiants de l’Université du Cap-Occidental, il ressort que cette migration est en grande partie une réponse à l’inaccessibilité croissante aux études supérieures porteuses de promesses d’emploi dans les pays d’origine. Pour bon nombre d’étudiants, leur migration fait suite à un échec d’un projet antérieur d’étudier dans une université du Nord. La bonne image de l’Afrique du Sud sur le continent, l’éventail des programmes pertinents de formation et la réputation de ses universités contribuent pour beaucoup à déterminer l’acte migratoire de ces étudiants vers ce pays. Les étudiants désireux de rester en Afrique du Sud sont en nombre inférieur à celui des étudiants désireux de quitter ce pays après leurs études. Chez ces derniers, la migration de retour au pays l’emporte sur une relocalisation ailleurs. Cette migration de retour serait motivée, d’une part par l’environnement social sud-africain quelque peu hostile à l’encontre des migrants d’origine africaine, et d’autre part par l’ambition de jouer un rôle positif dans l’économie du pays d’origine.

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1Why study educational migration to South Africa among youth from West and Central Africa? First a fall, in more recent years considerable numbers of young people have migrated from other parts of sub-Saharan Africa in search of better quality higher education in South Africa. Further, student migration is an increasingly important phenomenon worldwide, although this has received scant attention from either policy-makers or researchers (Anthias, 2006; Baas, 2007; Balaz & Williams, 2004; Castles & Miller, 2003). Matznetter (2010: 3) made the point that “for many countries in the Western world, international students have become a factor of economic, social and cultural development, and competition to attract these students has become more intense”. This same author also contends that since the beginning of the 21st century, tertiary education has increasingly become a more globalised product and service than ever before. South Africa, along with many other comparatively ‘rich’ countries, is among the most popular and highly regarded study destinations, and this form of migration is likely to increase, given the deterioration or collapse of educational systems in many parts of francophone Africa and the restriction of traditional migratory gateways into Europe. International migration of students brings with it a lot of benefits to both the recipient and sending country, respectively, though these benefits are more discussed from the former. Benefits include gains in scientific skills and financial contributions to institutions in which they have been admitted. A study recently conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE) has revealed that such financial contributions to the US economy could be very considerable (IIE, 2012). More than half of the foreign students in that country pay either from personal or family funds. The situation is quite similar to that of other industrialised countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

2Within the context of internalisation of higher education, young people as migrant students have emerged as a ‘newly’ discovered social constituency in international migration (Matzenetter, 2010). Migration for tertiary education is considerably in the rise around the globe, concentrating however in a few economically advanced countries (Balaz & Williams, 2004; Baas, 2007; Shen, 2007; Matzenetter, 2010; Choudaha & alii, 2012; Cubillo & alii, 2006). From the perspective of the host country, specific forms of educational migration among the youth tend to be discussed in terms that are disconnected from migrants’ trajectories through different markets. In other words, these migrants tend to be referred to as ‘international students’, ‘young asylum seekers’ and ‘foreign students’, which blurs the actual labour migration element with predictably some problematic consequences. For example, isolating the migration of young people from other forms of migration risks losing sight of the structural relations, and the ways in which migrant students as social actors engage with, resist or negotiate the structural relations embedded in the societal contexts where they live and interact with the locals- yet from an often-vulnerable position. While studying abroad may be seen as relatively positive and something to be encouraged, meeting the costs of study through self-employment or casual work in a host country may entail considerations and experiences for migrant students that are less benign. In this regards, these two forms of migration- educational and labour- are often connected. This connection is of great interest and it has thus far received no explicit attention in the context of reduced levels of sponsorship either from the country of origin or for the international assistance to African countries in the training of young people. In the past, African students were sent to Europe, especially to the former Soviet Union and other socialist republics as part of their ideological strategy during the cold war, to obtain advanced tertiary education or specialised training. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this practice has almost disappeared. One must also note that the migration of young people to South Africa takes place in the context of drastic cuts in public spending on bursaries to study at home or abroad, and students involved in educational migration generally receive little or no support from their governments and instead cover most of their own costs. On the subject of definitions, the term ‘young’ (or ‘youth’) refers to any person between the ages of 18 and 35 years. This is in line with the definition conventionally applicable to the context of South Africa. The type of migration of focus in this paper excludes students’ exchange mobility in the way it operates through such schemes as Erasmus in Europe or similar ones in other parts of the industrialised world. Students’ mobility through international agreements is not as yet prevalent on the African continent. Thus migration is analysed along the UN conventional measurement lines as a change of residence across international borders for a period exceeding six months.

3This article critically examines the motives behind the migration for study of young people from West and Central Africa to South Africa. More specifically, the following questions are addressed: Is South Africa perceived as an alternative because of failure to migrate for study to Europe or elsewhere? What are the academic institutions in South Africa benefitting the most or the least from this migration of African students? What are the considerations put forward by migrant students in deciding to choose an academic institution in South Africa? How does the decision to return home or relocate elsewhere play out among these students?

4Three main sections divide this article. The first one includes the context of the study, the theoretical framework that guides the empirical analysis and the data methods of the study. The second one presents the main results emanating from the analysis of data, looking at patterns in the motivations among African students for migrating to study in South Africa. More specifically this section heavily dwells on data collected from a survey conducted on the campus of the University of the Western Cape, as a case study, to elaborate on the students’ experiences. These data also provide insights into the prospects for return to the country of origin upon study completion. The last section brings about some concluding remarks to indicate a few directions for policy and further research in the area of students migration.

Context of the study, theoretical framework and methodology

5South Africa is a new destination for young migrants looking for higher education facilities, and this is particularly the case with migration of young people from the rest of Africa. Most of these migrants started to arrive around 2005, although it remains difficult to date or quantify in an exact manner the magnitude of different waves. Massey (2006) argues that the end of apartheid in 1994 seems to have contributed to the formation of a migratory sub-system centred on this country. Up to the collapse of apartheid, immigrants were predominantly non-Africans, while the entry of Africans was controlled and limited (Crush, 2000). Soon after apartheid was abolished, an intense movement of traders took place between these countries and South Africa, with Johannesburg being the main supply centre for goods (Legoko, 2006; Akokpari, 2002). This trade-related mobility may have contributed to South Africa’s image as a viable destination country for income-generating and educational opportunities. With its modern infrastructure and relatively developed economy, the country is seen as an alternative to traditional destinations such as France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and some North African countries. South Africa has gained significance as those countries have implemented increasingly selective admissions policies with regard to foreign students. The statistics compiled from the Department of Higher Education and the Council on Higher Education (CHE, 2009) show consolidated growth in the numbers of students from different geographical origins coming to South Africa. A consistent increase is observed from 1994 to 2010 in foreign student numbers coming to South Africa. These foreign students originated predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa even from those distant countries outside the southern African region (Unesco Institute of Statistics, 2009 cited in CHE, 2009). In spite of the language barrier and the costs involved in relocation, significant numbers of young people from francophone Africa choose to migrate to South Africa for study-related purposes.

6South Africa is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to attract substantial numbers of foreign students. The potential for benefits to be gained from foreign students has motivated the authorities in charge of the higher education system to look for ways of increasing recruitment of students from within the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The benefits are particularly directed at the postgraduate level, where low numbers of South African candidates are a matter of concern, both from an academic and a research capacity point of view. It is thus no surprise that the majority of foreign students in South Africa enrol in postgraduate programmes. Overall, taking undergraduate and postgraduate levels together, South African students still represent more than 92% of the total enrolments, but they are proportionally in decline. Data produced by The Commission on Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education and Technology (DHET) reveal that over the period 1994-2010, the population of foreign students from other African countries has grown substantially, overtaking students from the rest of the world in the period under consideration. This growth is considerable when one considers that in 2000, for example, South African universities had only 4 263 students from other parts of Africa (excluding the SADC region, principally from Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda and Nigeria) against 5 568 students from the rest of the world (outside Africa). In 2010 the number of students from other African countries reached 10 986 while the number of students from the rest of the world was 7 302. Although yearly statistics are hardly available, it is interesting to observe that from 2006 to 2010, African students outside the SADC region were in numbers more represented than students of known origin from outside Africa. These students come mainly from Europe (United Kingdom and Scandinavia countries top the list), Asia (China, India and Pakistan are predominantly represented) and to a lesser extent North America (USA and Canada), and mostly via student exchange programmes. The origins of African students from outside the SADC region have diversified to include such francophone countries as Gabon, Cameroon, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast to name but a few. Referring again to the same years, 2000 and 2010, one can note that the SADC region was represented by 21 318 and 46 496 students, respectively, enrolled at South African universities. Thus the country draws its foreign student population mainly from its geographical zone of traditional economic influence, as it did for foreign labour recruited on mines during the apartheid era. Some of these students probably perceive South Africa as a privileged economic power in the region where to find employment. In a sense, the migrational relations are geographically maintained despite some change in the composition of the migrants’ demographics and motives. Zimbabwe is a major source of foreign students. A country once well endowed with good quality educational facilities, the economic and social crisis of the past years has seriously undermined the higher education system and resulted in massive influxes of students to South Africa. The substantial decline in the number of students from SADC countries in 2009, about 9% down from 2008, could be a reflection of the violent xenophobic attacks, which took place in 2008 and 2009 and mainly targeted African migrants. These attacks probably deterred some of the potential candidates in the neighbouring countries from migrating to South Africa and may have prompted others to leave the country. An increase is evident in 2010, when new migratory measures between South Africa and Zimbabwe were implemented such as short-term work permits and the regularisation of cross-border migrants in irregular situations. The trends for students outside the SADC region consolidated during the period, showing no sign of relentless.

7The precise number of these student migrants in South Africa is not known because some of them enrol in private education institutions which are deficient in communicating timely their statistics to the department of higher education in charge of compiling enrolment statistics at national level. The status of not being formally registered refrains some of them from communicating their enrolment statistics to the public authority as this might reveal their operations. Overall, the private higher education sector has undoubtedly also experienced a considerable increase in the number of students from African countries enrolled since 1994. In 2011, the South African education department released a list that indicated that there were 114 private tertiary institutions authorised to operate in the country, although only 84 were fully registered (IEASA, 2011). Quite a few of these institutions are linked to international universities and give preference to vocational programmes, tapping into market-oriented skills (IEASA, 2011). Notwithstanding the growing importance of the private sector, it is reasonable to assume that each year hundreds if not thousands of young people attempt to enrol in South African public higher education institutions.

8What then theoretically can stand out as the driving forces of this migration? Although there is not as such a theory of migration exclusively applicable to students, one can however point out that from a general point of view, migration has traditionally been associated with younger age sets. Age patterns reveal that migrants are generally in the early years of their adult lives and research on migration generally corroborates the proposition that persons in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties are more migratory than their older counterparts. The interpretation that follows is that young people are able to adapt more easily to new situations. Also, as the young are close to the beginning of their working lives they are envisaged as being more readily inclined to take advantage of new opportunities involving migration while older people are apt to be constrained by a host of more permanent social and economic ties at their places of residence. The migration segmentation approach proposed in this article highlights patterns among students from diverse origins to explore the conflicting demands they face in the process of search for tertiary education institution outside their home country (Dibb & Simkin, 2010). Earlier, Cubillo & alii (2006) proposed a theoretical model with five prominent factors which influence the international students ‘choice. The factors indentified are: personal reasons, country of destination image, higher education institution image, city of destination image, and programme evaluation. According to Choudaha & alii (2012), segmentation provides the motivational and aspirations profiles of potential customers (students), and shows how these characteristics are associated with certain patterns of behaviour in the choice of a place to study abroad. From a student recruitment point of view, migration segmentation can assist in anticipating on cultural diversity and needs of international student body based on backgrounds, values and educational goals. Differences in characteristics impact on students’ behaviours and choices of institutions. The same authors argue that the process of choosing an institution of tertiary education comprises of three steps: predisposition to attend a higher education institution, information search, and choosing which institution to attend. The framework proposed by these authors does not capture properly the way in which the individual negotiates the tension within the dynamics of choice. The present study takes further this process by bringing into it the individuals’ motivations and the contextual factors that determine the transition from one step to another. The transition is not linear as one may though of it. It involves dealing with constraints, trying, failing and assessing alternatives and options, and valorising the education gained. For instance, Matzenetter (2010: 5) argues that academic failure at entrance exams and threshold requirements at particular institutions that push some students to study elsewhere. In the vein, the studies edited by Mazzella (2008, 2009) inform on the extent to which some sub-Saharan African students, faced with increased restriction to enter Europe, redesign their strategies by opting for a geographical mobility of proximity to study in Maghreb universities. This may apply to a certain degree to those students migrating to South Africa.

9Thus the conceptual framework used in this article argues that because students have different profiles, they show different behaviours in the process of seeking information, about a suitable academic institution. The information might be of different types as well (presence of friends, possibility of funding, types of programmes), and could be obtained from different sources (web sites, social media, personal networks). Along these lines, one can therefore conceive of admission-seeking behaviour of students as being under the influence of failure to study in the North, previous academic exposure, financial resources and aspirations for the type of institution desired. A microanalysis of the more subjective elements in the migration process and of individual motives for migration illuminates the link between educational aspiration and migration. As Taylor (cited in Shaw, 1975) proposes it, a motivational approach to migration among the youth suggests a conceptualisation of this event in relation to the degree of structural strain at the place of origin, and how the concerned individual perceives and evaluates elements of stress. The so-called ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that impact on decisions to migrate have been well documented in the literature (UIS, 2009). The frustrations of under-resourced universities at home and aspirations to pursue particular fields of study fit into the ‘push’ category. In the ‘pull’ category, choices of destination for students can be determined by reputable academic institutions and affordability of tuition (UIS, 2009). South Africa as a major student’s destination is likely to be in this category. But the “push-pull” framework may be of limited use as it does not sufficiently encapsulate the influence of markets functionality over individual’s motives.

  • 1  This institution has since merged with Cape Technikon to become the Cape Peninsula University of T (...)

10As far as data are concerned, this article is based on a combination of primary and secondary source of information. The primary data was collected from March to April 2009 making use of a survey of 235 students from francophone Africa (Ivory Coast, Burundi, Rwanda, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville) and two Anglophone countries (Nigeria and Ghana). The focus was on those students who migrated to South Africa and were enrolled in various departments at the University of the Western Cape. A few students from the nearby Peninsula Technikon1 campus were also interviewed, not only because of its proximity to where the principal investigator had office but also to obtain a broader perspective from foreign from students choosing a more technical line of study. The survey was of a cross-sectional design, with respondents selected using a purposive method and the snowball sampling technique. Respondents in the sample were therefore selected subjectively because I did not have a list of students to be used as a sampling frame. The snowball sampling involved contacting a member of the student population of interest and asking whether they knew anyone else with the required characteristics. The two interviewers I worked with (postgraduate students under my supervision) were very helpful with regard to arranging contacts with respondents. Both structured and unstructured questions were included in the questionnaire, and information was gathered on students’ current personal details, pre-migratory social situations, migration decision-taking, post-migration experiences, and intention to re-migrate. Informed consent was obtained from all respondents and respondent’s details were kept confidential. The two interviewers conducted face-to-face interviews and some respondents completed the questionnaire in writing themselves, as the questions were self-explanatory. The analytical approach pursued in the article from the survey data focuses on the variables that inform on the considerations around the decision making process of migration. A qualitative focus however has been kept present in the analysis of information to bring more insights in the data collected from the survey.

Patterns in the socio-spatial trajectories of migrant students

Motives, educational access and prospects for employment

11Without exception, the young people surveyed clearly suggested that they chose to migrate for personal reasons and were quite positive about their experiences of relocation. Migration had allowed most respondents to develop skills in educational fields that are either not available or are difficult to gain entrance to in their own countries. As one of the respondents put it, ‘Here [in South Africa] you can study in such prestigious disciplines as engineering, computer science, medical and pharmaceutical studies or business, with no problem, as long as you have the minimum requirements and a bit of money to pay registration fees.’ Others emphasised the possibility of earning income while studying, to pay for their higher education. The disciplines chosen by respondents were diverse, with science subjects such as physiotherapy, nursing, microbiology, science, chemistry and medical technology tending to predominate.

12The interviews conducted revealed that dysfunctional tertiary education systems in the countries of origin played a critical role in generating migration. Many students had struggled to find work or educational opportunities at home; although in lower numbers compared to undergraduate foreign students in the overall statistics, students at the postgraduate level are the ones who seemed to have encountered that situation most. Destinations such as South Africa become particularly attractive for those entering the postgraduate cycle and looking to settle down on their own. Confronted with increased competition for admission at postgraduate level- vocational training or higher education- in the countries of origin and the prospect of long-term unemployment, many see migrating to South Africa as a viable alternative. This explains why the pursuit of formal postgraduate education (honours and master’s degrees) emerged as a major reason for migration by most of the young people interviewed.

13Some respondents said that they covered their costs either by earning income or by working for a relative or someone known to them in return for financial support. Others acknowledged that migration came with hardships associated with being away from one’s family and cultural environment. For most, these disadvantages and potential dangers were considered to be more than offset by the potential benefits, tangible or otherwise. It was very clear that the choice of South Africa was strongly associated with the respondent’s desire to improve their marketability through better education.

14The language factor was seen as quite critical in shaping prospects for employment. When asked if studying in English was not an impediment to success, those with no prior fluency in the language stated this was not the case. On the contrary, they pointed out that improving their skills in English was part of their strategy to boost their prospects of finding a job, either in South Africa or elsewhere. In fact, many had already considered the possibility of English being an obstacle when they were considering migration and they had attended English courses before migrating. All of the interviewed students indicated that they had not been required to take a fluency test in English when applying for admission to South African higher education institutions.

  • 2  DEA, which stands for Diplôme d’Études Approfondies, is a degree delivered by French universities (...)

15It is important to point out that several students’ decisions to move were strongly motivated by offers of financial assistance of whatever type from the institutions to which they had applied. As South Africa’s higher education system comes to function increasingly like an industry, universities’ recruitment strategies tend to advertise these sorts of offers, raising the expectations of financial support among potential migrant students. Upon arrival, though, several students had been disappointed by not getting what they thought they had been promised prior to migrating. As explained by a female student (EJ, holder of a DEA in mathematics2) from Cameroon:

“I was admitted at UCT for doctoral studies in mathematics. At the time of admission, my supervisor agreed to support me financially with a studentship. When I arrived in South Africa, he instead told me that I should apply for a doctoral scholarship within a special NRF (National Research Foundation)programme for African students. I did it, but failed to get a scholarship. I decided to look for another institution with the hope of getting some financial aid. I ended up by joining the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.”

16This student has since left the country to relocate to Florida in the United States, after being offered a doctoral scholarship there.

17South African law allows foreign students with a ‘study permit’ to obtain paid employment on or off campus for a maximum of 20 hours per week. Most students interviewed had a number of compelling reasons for wanting to work while studying. Having come to South Africa with a limited amount of money, they had usually spent this on books, rent and transport within a couple of months of their arrival. After that, as they often pointed out, they were on their own. Finding employment was thus necessary to cover their living expenses. In addition, some respondents were expected to send money home. As they explained, paying back what they owe was often part of the bargain from the beginning- their families helped to provide the necessary initial funds but hoped that one day soon a return on their investment would be made in the form of remittances. This situation meant that many respondents admitted to working more than 20 hours per week, and also seemed to find this quite normal. Due to the temporary and informal nature of such work, there tends to be significant under-reporting for tax payment purposes. Respondents reported a case of a female student from Mauritius routinely working 40 hours a week in a consultancy firm without being registered with the South African Revenue Services. One hears of many similar cases. On the one hand the respondents were perfectly aware that 20 hours was the legal maximum number of work hours, but on the other hand they argued that they simply had to earn more, and that ‘everybody else’ was doing this too. In my view, their sense of this being normal related not only to the financial pressures they were under but also to what they saw as being normal for a migrant as temporary migration for work-related reasons is the most common form of young-age migration.

18Besides, not all student take every step in a fair or legal manner and various tactics seem to be quite commonly be used in order to circumvent the formal procedures. It was gathered from indirect sources that some foreign students attempt to gain access to higher education in South Africa using fake certificates, unsupported applications for refugee status, bribes to South African Department of Home Affairs officials, and arranged marriages, to name but a few. Such unlawful strategies tend to be justified by those using them with reference to the fact that the legal framework around residential permits is constraining and procedures are overly bureaucratic.

Choosing South Africa in a globalising higher education system

19In the world of today, the international system of higher education operates like a market in which there is both supply (the universities with their programmes) and demand (the student population). This market is of course influenced by factors such as prices, migration policies, and university policies, to name but a few- in other words, so-called market forces apply. However, in the ‘real world’, subjective or personal considerations matter too, and they add to the domain of market-driven considerations.

20In the survey conducted at the University of the Western Cape (Tati, 2010), student respondents were asked to compare South Africa with universities in other countries to which they had intended or contemplated migrating for study. Respondents were thus asked to call upon the knowledge they had gleaned from different sources (the internet, leaflets, friends, among others) about the quality of education and life in those countries. Because of the purposive character of the sample of respondents, the data collected should be regarded as mere indications.

21As far as tertiary education is concerned, there are areas where South African education institutions compare favourably and others where they compare unfavourable. Overall, the image the country’s higher education system conveys is considerably positive. South Africa is perceived to provide an appropriate social environment for study in terms of respect for human rights. This finds resonance in the popular recognition that South Africa has one of the most protective constitutions in the world when it comes to individual rights. Its tertiary education is also considered affordable. In real terms, it can cost to an African student five to six times more to study in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the area that attracted the highest score is the recognition among the respondents that the quality of education is almost the same. When probed during the interviews, students indicated that they were referring to programme content and access to learning material. The programmes offered generally met their expectations. South Africa is also viewed favourably because of its location within the continent; indeed the country has a locational advantage for students from the SADC region, and especially those from the Southern African Customs Union and Zimbabwe. These students do not have to travel as far as Europe or further to study, and can also to avoid the hassles associated with visa requirements. Most respondents also thought that the culture shock was probably less dramatic in South Africa than they might experience in the North.

22Conversely, based on feedback from the same respondents, universities in the North were valued more highly in terms of the support they provide to students. Bursaries and other forms of financial aid were frequently mentioned in this regard. Northern institutions are also seen as places where levels of crime and xenophobia are low compared to the situation in South Africa (in this regard it is likely that respondents were referring to events that happened in South Africa in 2008 and 2009). Standards of education are presumed to be higher in the North, although as mentioned quite a number of respondents view the quality of higher education South Africa as being on a par with the universities in the North. To a few respondents, the universities in the North are more accommodating than their counterparts in South Africa. When this statement was probed, it came out that this had to do with the way students are integrated into the structures of the university and how they become more socially integrated in the host country through the university. Although not mentioned by many respondents, a few did strongly state that foreign students from Africa are somewhat isolated from South African society. They do not interact or mingle socially with South African nationals, even on campus and they learn little about the society in which they are living. It goes without saying that widespread perceptions of rampant crime and xenophobia mentioned do not improve this situation and it comes as no surprise that students view the universities in the North as offering more opportunities than those in South Africa. Job opportunities during and after study were the most cited in this regard, in addition to the ease with which residential status can be changed. It is important to point out here that many factors play in favour of the universities in the North. The major one is their well-established reputation built over several years (extending in some cases over centuries). Universities in the North remain attractive to many young Africans and the countries to which they intended to go for study reveal a strong preference for traditional destinations. Countries mentioned most by respondents were Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and the United States. South Africa is still seen as ‘a new kid on the block’ in the higher education industry. While relatively competitive, when it comes to costs, quality and the advantages of proximity and culture, the social climate that seems to count against South Africa, crime and xenophobia are the major contributory elements to this perception. An additional ‘negative’ factor is that South Africa is an African country- the stereotypes surrounding the image of the continent are often reinforced in the media; and among young Africans the view that life in Western Europe or North America is much better than in Africa remains strongly entrenched.

23The distribution of countries for which respondents indicated that they would like to go and study displays a strong presence of the North. With 77% of the respondents, North America, Western Europe and Australia were altogether the preferred choices. Interestingly, quite a few opted for institutions based in southern and East Africa. The universities of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Uganda were each mentioned by one or two respondents. This suggests that South Africa may have been a second choice for some students, and had they been given a chance to go and study in Europe, they probably would have taken it.

Failing to make it to the North

24Translating one’s intention to migrate abroad into a reality is not always an easy process. Even after being offered admission by an institution of choice, there is no guarantee that migration will take place as planned. For most students aspiring to migrate to Western countries, the biggest obstacle they are likely to face is securing funds to cover the costs of study. State-sponsored bursaries or personal resources are not always available, especially in this time of drastic cuts in the financing of higher education. As indicated in the previous section, relatively lower costs work in South Africa’s favour. Given the direct link between financial eligibility and the granting of visas to enter the desired country, a lack of financial resources is the main reason why respondents had failed to migrate to the North. Lack of financial resources was indicated by about 62% of the respondents, as the reason why they failed to migrate to the North. Far below, in second place, respondents indicated that they had experienced problems related to obtaining the required visa (although these two reasons would probably have been linked). Putting these negative outcomes aside, some respondents noted with hindsight that studying in South Africa had worked out better for them than they had expected. Some students opted to study in South Africa because of its proximity to their home countries, the ease of migrating and the financial support available. Obtaining refugee status and social commitment were two other reasons given by respondents. Since the major factors mentioned by respondents were the relative affordability of study in South Africa and the quality of education offered here, the country’s higher education institutions should capitalise on these issues if they wish to attract additional African students to their universities.

Choosing a university in South Africa: things that matter

25As in any other part of the world, African students applying for admission to South African universities face various considerations. Securing admission is of course the most important one. With this come expectations around the quality of education, the availability of a study programme that suited to one’s needs, the institutional environment and the sense of social belonging, to name but a few. Obviously these considerations can overlap, compete or gain prominence sequentially when one is choosing where to study. As shown from the data, there is a great deal of diversity in the degree of personal issues that motivated respondents to choose the University of the Western Cape as a learning institution. With 23% of respondents mentioning it, the cost of study was the prime consideration for respondents and this was followed by the reputation of the institution. Thus once the quality of education at a particular institution is perceived as being good, the students are likely to flock there in numbers. This is not merely a perception; it can be ascertained by examining the ranking of the South African universities in relation to the number of foreign students registered.

26To what extent are these young student migrants relying on social networks to accomplish their educational objectives upon arrival in South Africa? The data gathered suggest a choice of destination guided by the presence of social capital, but also a search for a place that can offer economic, educational and cultural possibilities. The major cities offering prestigious universities seem to be first choice for young migrants from francophone Africa. The major urban centres offer certain other advantages linked to concentrations of migrants from the same country. Not only this has the potential to reduce isolation, it also provides migrants with a valuable network for finding employment and accommodation. Associations based on country citizenship are generally used as a channel through which assistance, information and moral support are obtained in time of hardship and in the search for opportunities. Specific strategies are also worked out within these associations to deal with possible constraints encountered in relation to local administrative structures. Most respondents stated that they were able to secure admission to university prior to moving to South Africa with the assistance of persons related to them (often siblings) or friends. For others, admission was accomplished through university websites, which they accessed via the many internet cafés in their countries of origin.

27Although all major cities offer similar advantages, the choice of a particular city is greatly influenced by the stock of information communicated to potential migrants by those who have already migrated about the quality of life in the area. For example, some respondents mentioned that they preferred Cape Town to Johannesburg because foreigners reportedly encounter less harassment from police officers on the streets. Others stated that it is more difficult to find a casual job or to run a business in Johannesburg than it is in Cape Town even if one is suitably qualified. Respondents who had previously stayed in Johannesburg confirmed that living there comes with a lot of police harassment and the city has a reputation for placing administrative hurdles in the way of foreigners who apply for residence or work-related documents at the offices of the Department of Home Affairs. Thus, considerations related to what were seen as ‘friendly’ urban environments were of major importance and they informed the choices made by young migrants as to where to relocate within South Africa.

Staying or leaving after graduation

28An analysis of responses regarding intentions to leave or stay in South Africa upon completion of study shows an interesting pattern, which contrasts somewhat with the generally accepted view that student migrants are predominantly candidates for departure: 54% of respondents had positive attitudes towards leaving South Africa, 42% were willing to stay, and only 4% were uncertain about whether to stay or leave. For those planning to leave, the timing tended to fall within a one to three years of completing their studies, and naturally this was conditional on actual completion of study. Thus, for the majority of survey respondents, returning to their home country was part of their plans for the near future, and it seemed likely that migration would not translate into a permanent residential relocation for them.

29Among the group who said they would opt to stay in South Africa, the major reasons cited were related to pursuing further studies and finding employment. This intention was well expressed, with strong optimism, among those with refugee status. This is understandable as South Africa’s refugee policy makes provision for individuals with no place to go to remain in the country. They had not, however, reckoned on the difficulty involved in finding the much-desired job. One computer science student put it succinctly:

“If I get an excellent job, I can continue my career in IT without change of place. I will need to get a job first to be able to apply, and when I apply for a job they ask for resident permit. Well, that’s funny, don’t you think?”

30For some students, the reason for staying is marital, and their migration may have been induced in the first place by family regrouping. As a country of relocation, South Africa is not always hostile to foreign students and new family attachments are a significant reason for graduates not leaving the country. As one medical science student (from Rwanda) put it, ‘My family stay here; South Africa feels like home for me’. However, among those respondents opting to leave South Africa (54%), some opposite sentiments emerge. A considerable number stated that they wanted to return home for family-related reasons. Other reasons included xenophobia, insecurity, bureaucracy, discrimination, and better job prospects elsewhere. While the home country was frequently mentioned, other major destinations cited included Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Excluding the United Kingdom, the fact that none of the respondents mentioned European countries in the Shengen Zone is an indication of the extent to which these countries are increasingly seen as hostile to immigration from Africa. France, for instance, no longer represents a preferred destination for francophone students who possess a good command of professional English. The box below presents selected views collected from respondents regarding the reasons for planning to leave South Africa.

Selected statements from respondents on their motives for leaving

The question posed to survey respondents was: What is the motive for your departure from South Africa?

To develop my country with skills I have acquired in my field of study.
Discrimination for foreign people. I don’t trust this country and this people. What happened in 2008 [in reference to xenophobic attacks] can happen again.
To earn a bigger salary. My home country, higher wages, and meet friends and relatives. African international students often regarded as a threat in the job market, and I would not like to be part of the threat.
South African people are xenophobic…am tired of them!
Do not like the place, because of discrimination. They do not want foreigners.
Settle at home.
To go and apply the knowledge I have acquired for the development of my country (charity starts at home).
I want to develop my country when there is still a possibility of making a change.
To develop my country and be close to family.
I am not happy here and peoples are not that friendly. This is really a not safe country to live in.
Discrimination, violence, crime, xenophobia and development in my field of study. Home Affairs officials especially don’t like Nigerians, same as South Africans. South Africans believe all Nigerians are drug dealers or in shady deals. I do not think the stereotype can easily be dealt with. A colleague once told me she grew up hating foreigners due to what her mother told her. The xenophobia (Negrophobia) incidents of last year (2008) attest to this.
Find a job in a secure country. I feel insecure here with xenophobia. Being accepted as someone who can help in the system. Here they are thinking that giving a job to a foreigner is a great favour.

Note: Students responses are quoted verbatim.

31Viewed from the perspective of South Africa and the country of origin, the considerable number of students returning home is an indication of the element of brain gain with the benefits of human capital. For the sending country, it brings the benefits related to developmental impact. As most of the respondents indicated, migrant students intend to use the skills acquired in the South African education system to help develop their respective countries.

32Students who do not return home after completing their studies risk becoming undocumented, irregular or illegal migrants, thus being excluded from any kind of official support (such as welfare benefits or social security) in the host country. For young migrants who decide not to return home, prospects in the home country tend to be even more tenuous and employment conditions even more insecure than in the host country. According to Unesco statistics, the number of foreign African students applying for work permits after graduation is high (UIS, 2009). For these students, South Africa does not simply offer an interesting study-abroad option with the possibility of becoming a resident; it also offers, quite simply, an opportunity to obtain employment. Interestingly, most of the students interviewed mentioned the issue of parental approval for staying abroad as it brings families a strong promise of remittances in future. This is an indication of inter-generational contract, where interdependence and autonomy coexist, albeit that the relationship is unequally balanced in favour of the parents. However, as argued by Hashim (2006), such a contract benefits both the young person involved in the migration, and their relatives, and thus some degree of equilibrium in the relationship is reached.

33A degree of unanimity emerged from respondents in terms of not being forced by parents or other relatives to migrate for study. This is not to say that there were no apprehensions of any kind from the parent’s side. It seems that in most cases the decision to migrate, however, had been negotiated- either with parents or other relatives- in order to secure the necessary material support, or simply to get the parental blessing for the venture. As one respondent put it:

“My parents had to act as mediators in persuading my cousin in South Africa to facilitate my migration. In the first place he was opposed to it, saying he had no money to cover the costs. In fact, it’s the problem of accommodation. He was sharing a two-bedroom flat with five other persons and could not therefore provide for accommodation. I had many problems finding accommodation upon arrival, until I got one in the student’s hostels.”

34The situation of this respondent is not uncommon. At destination, young people experience, to varying degrees, specific problems, including overworking, wages below the statutory minimum, illegal residential status, xenophobia, inappropriate accommodation and so on. Yet, against the backdrop of all these challenges, almost all the young people interviewed stated they preferred the South African environment to their countries of origin. Some viewed life at home as being much more difficult than the problems faced in the host environment. Such a view suggests a positive evaluation of the real and potential opportunities that migration might offer.

Insertion into the labour market after graduation

35As noted, migration to South Africa for study purposes is associated with the objective of finding or taking up a better job after graduation, either back home or in the current location. Prior to the migration, this objective was not automatically achievable in the students’ countries of origin. Many respondents mentioned numerous friends or relatives who, despite having obtained tertiary qualifications in their home country, have failed to find employment. Others stated that their decision to migrate to South Africa was strongly motivated by friends or relatives- also migrants- who had gained access to local employment after studying in South Africa. It was clear that the relationships they had with such people not only helped them to obtain information about higher education institutions but was expected to be equally helpful when it came to searching for employment after they graduated. Such statements tend to lend credibility to the operation of social capital or social networks among prior migrants to the destination. This social capital is especially evident among young migrants originating from regions with a strong culture of migration, for example, young migrants from the western regions of Cameroon. From the interviews, most Cameroonians, for instance, indicated that prior to their arrival in South Africa they had some knowledge of how to find employment in specific segments of the labour market. Some were aware of the relative ease with which they could find formal employment and of the possibility of working as casual workers or street traders. As reported in numerous studies on migration, home-visiting migrants represent an important source of information for prospective migrants. These visitors consolidate the perception among young people that life elsewhere can be much better.

36This prospect of future employment is reinforced by the experiences of fellow migrants or other foreigners who have managed to find regular employment. Yet the transition from study to employment is not barrier-free as already mentioned. Securing employment is subject to obtaining proper documentation, namely a valid work permit. Immigration policy makes provision for changing one’s residential status from a study permit to a work permit, but this is highly regulated and restricted and is only possible under specific circumstances. Obtaining a South African qualification does provide such a possibility, especially at master’s or PhD level, or in areas classified as ‘scarce skills’. This is one of the reasons why foreign African students see postgraduate programmes, beyond the bachelor degree level (licence), as holding greater promise of eventual employment in South Africa than staying at home.

Some concluding comments

37The findings presented here on the patterns of departure and relocation among young educational Africans migrants in South Africa confirms that they have strong incentives to migrate. This is so because, for many, migration offers the most viable alternative to long-term deprivation caused by unemployment. Taking responsibility for expenditure, such as educational costs, forms part of the migrational decision to pursue a personal desire to be independent and escape from a difficult environment. Migration is also seen as a channel through which migrants may fulfil the expectations of their parents, both materially and socially through remittances and other transactions. At destination, university attendance in most cases does not preclude engagement in paid work. University teaching timetables are in most cases flexible enough to allow the students to undertake employment, be it casual or formal. Moreover, such employment is often seasonal or night-economy work that is dependent on student labour. Under the guise of learning or studying, the clear evidence of a work component can, in fact, be said to blur the distinction between migration for work and migration for study purposes.

38While some respondents expressed satisfaction with their experiences of study in South Africa, others expressed the opposite. On the positive side, many students found that the educational programmes offered were suitable for improving their prospects for future employment, and many considered it much easier to study successfully in South Africa than in their countries of origin. Yet, for some, there are hurdles on the path to success. Besides frequently mentioned problems related to language barriers and official documentation, some students consider the level of responsiveness to their specific problems from university authorities to be inadequate. Further, many academic institutions provide little space for foreign students to contribute to the transformation process or to become integral agents of change in the post-apartheid higher education system. Meanwhile, most of the students interviewed had to find ways of sponsoring their studies, usually through self-employment or taking jobs in exploitative working conditions. Migrant students employ various strategies to avoid interrupting their studies and staying in the country illegally. Such strategies range from, for example, working casually to pay tuition fees, to trying to obtain refugee status, or even marrying someone who has citizenship or a residence permit.

39The research went beyond student experiences to gauge the extent to which return to the home country was planned after study. It transpires that migration for study to South Africa often forms part of a project of staying longer for employment purposes. In this sense, migration might be seen as contributing to brain gain from the South African perspective, and to brain drain from that of the sending country. Skeldon (2005) and Matznetter (2010) state that, in most cases, students who migrate to developed countries stay and work in those countries as skilled professionals. However, other analysts challenge the ideas of brain gain and brain drain, arguing that student migration does not necessarily constitute a loss for the sending country. Asian countries, for example, provide telling examples of migrant students who have returned to their countries with skills and contributed significantly to the region’s continued economic development.

  • 3  It is important to note though that little empirical evidence has been produced to substantiate th (...)
  • 4  This word is coined in preference to the term ‘globalising’.

40The higher education system is now part of a global education industry. Issues of educational and labour migration, and brain drain versus brain gain, resonate at continental level, too, in the sense that the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), as an enabling continental institution, has as one of its main underlying principles the free movement of academia and related individuals. For these reasons, this particular form of migration is likely to increase, rather than decrease in years to come3. Starting such a process is urgently needed, given the uneven development among African states in a time of declining aid and global financial crisis (African Development Bank, 2011). The higher education sector seems likely to reflect this uneven development. Only a handful of countries, including South Africa, seem set to benefit form what some analysts call the ‘export education industry’ (Baas 2007). In such a socially diverse educational landscape there is an urgent need to go beyond globalised normative understandings of ‘a responsive educational system’ at the national level and instead gain a greater understanding of how young people of different genders and backgrounds perceive, experience and engage with the images, challenges, opportunities and vulnerabilities of an expanding and ‘Africanising’4 educational system.

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1  This institution has since merged with Cape Technikon to become the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

2  DEA, which stands for Diplôme d’Études Approfondies, is a degree delivered by French universities and is equivalent to a master’s degree.

3  It is important to note though that little empirical evidence has been produced to substantiate the intensification of migratory movements of young people from the central part of Africa to distant education institutions in francophone Africa, North Africa and southern Africa. South Africa is the main destination country examined in this chapter.

4  This word is coined in preference to the term ‘globalising’.

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Gabriel Tati, « Diversité des motivations de la formation et du retour d’étudiants africains de l’Université du Cap-Occidental », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, 13 | 2014, 73-96.

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Gabriel Tati, « Diversité des motivations de la formation et du retour d’étudiants africains de l’Université du Cap-Occidental », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], 13 | 2014, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2014, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL :

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Gabriel Tati

Associate professor in Demography and urban studies, Department of Statistics and Population Studies, University of the Western Cape,

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