LONDON — When Kessewaa Brown, an official at Standard Chartered Bank in Accra, Ghana, decided she wanted to go back to school to improve her career prospects, her options were limited.
“I have two kids. My youngest is still living at home, and so I needed a program where I didn’t have to quit my job or leave my family,” she said.
Like many professionals in Africa, she considered enrolling in a remote program for a degree from a British or American university. However, she worried about the lack of human interaction. “It’s different when you have the professor right in front of you, and you are able to debate the issues,” she said.
Abiodun Afinowi, a Nigerian management consultant based in Lagos, said that after two degrees from local universities he was looking for a program with a more global reputation. But he, too, was reluctant to leave his business. “I can’t afford to take a year or two to study in the U.S.,” he said.
Instead, both Ms. Brown and Mr. Afinowi joined the first class of students on a new executive M.B.A. program offered by Ceibs, the China Europe International Business School, at its campus in Accra, graduating in December 2010. Founded as a joint venture by the European Commission, the Chinese ministry of foreign trade, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Ceibs quickly became one of the most highly regarded business schools in the world.
“Our alumni oversee about 5 percent of China’s Gross Domestic Product,” said John Quelch, the school’s dean.
A former associate dean at the Harvard Business School, Mr. Quelch, who also served as dean of the London Business School, was in Britain in December to collect an O.B.E. from Queen Elizabeth. “One of the purposes of Ceibs is to challenge American dominance,” he said in an interview during his visit.
Although there have been Western-backed universities in Africa before — the American University in Cairo dates to 1919 — most arose out of missionary impulses, a trend that continues with Daystar in Kenya, founded by American Protestant missionaries, and Strathmore, also in Kenya, whose founders were members of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei. The Ceibs program in Accra is completely secular, as is a new branch of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University that is set to open in Kigali, Rwanda, this month.
Offering master’s degrees in engineering and information technology, the program has the backing of the government of Rwanda and the African Development Bank, which is hoping to use it as the model for a string of centers across the continent. As with the Ceibs program, which flies in faculty members from Shanghai and Beijing, students will study with Carnegie Mellon faculty. “We are offering Carnegie Mellon credits towards a Carnegie Mellon degree,” said Bruce Krogh, professor of electrical engineering and the new program’s director.
Do such ambitious ventures portend the start of an academic scramble for Africa reminiscent of the rivalry between the great powers at the beginning of the past century? Alex Vines, head of Africa programs at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, thinks they might.
“Given the state of higher education in Africa, the huge growth in demand and a rapidly growing middle class, I think this is just the beginning,” he said. “There are state universities and private providers already there. But they can’t guarantee either quality or the recognized status that students want. And you have to remember, Africa has the fastest-growing population of young people in the world.”
The Ceibs Web site is unabashed about the advantages of being “a ‘first mover’ in this uncharted region.” But Pedro Nueno, the president of Ceibs, said, “I don’t think in Africa you can talk about competition. There’s so much to be done.”
Postgraduate education in Africa today, he said, reminds him of “when I started in China in 1984 — there was no competition at all.”
The opportunity to be in at the start also appealed to Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Krogh, who will be moving from Pittsburgh to Kigali, said that while the initial class will be limited to 40 students, “we hope to ramp up fairly quickly to 150 students and a faculty of 15 based in Rwanda.”
The university has a 10-year contract with the Rwandan government, which has agreed to meet all the costs of the new venture, and to allow Carnegie Mellon total control over admissions and curriculum. Tuition will be the same as at Carnegie Mellon’s other campuses, $37,800 a year, a figure Mr. Krogh described as “outrageously expensive for Africa.”
However, he said that a combination of scholarships and loans, funded by the Rwandan government and other donors, meant that most students would pay considerably less. He also pointed out that at present African students wanting anything comparable to a Carnegie Mellon degree have to leave the continent. “We want our campus in Kigali to be an alternative to that,” he said.
Indeed, he said that eventually students from Pittsburgh and other Carnegie Mellon campuses might want to come to Rwanda for a portion of their studies.
Reversing Africa’s long-standing brain drain was also cited as a goal by Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, director of the Ceibs Accra program. “The conditions here mirror China 30 years ago, when if you wanted a top quality business education you had to travel overseas. Many of them didn’t come back,” he said.
Mr. Atuahene-Gima, a Ghanaian who holds degrees from two universities in Australia, worked abroad for 20 years before returning to Ghana this year. “It’s nice to be home,” he said.
Students in the 18-month executive M.B.A. program pay tuition of $35,000. “That’s expensive, yes. But for the same course in China we charge $85,000. Also we offer quite generous discounts and partial scholarships,” Mr. Atuahene-Gima said.
The most recent cohorts, of 40 students each, came from all over Africa. “Nigeria, Rwanda, Ivory Coast — anywhere with a direct flight to Accra. Eighty-five percent of them work in the private sector. And 90 percent pay their own tuition,” he said.
Karen Rothmyer, an American who taught for three years at the University of Nairobi, said: “It makes sense that foreign outfits would see opportunities here. And they can probably raise money claiming they’re helping the poor Africans.”
Ms. Rothmyer worries that the new entrants into African higher education might siphon off students — and resources — from national universities. She also pointed out that the new campuses are aimed squarely at professional education. Young Africans, she said, “want to become accountants, doctors or lawyers, and that’s what their parents want, too. You don’t find a lot of them saying they want to study literature or sociology.”
Ms. Brown and Mr. Afinowi both stressed the importance of professional advancement as one factor in choosing to study at Ceibs. The Chinese connection was also a big plus, especially for Mr. Afinowi, whose business often involves travel to China, and who said that many of the case studies used in class were based on Chinese companies.
But both of them also said that the study trip to China had also had a major effect on how they viewed Africa.
“I was thinking of the future, and networking,” Ms. Brown said. “With the Chinese moving into Africa this seemed like a good opportunity to learn about their language and their culture.”
Admitting that her attempt to learn the language was still a work in progress, she said “the opportunity for me to go to China and see first-hand the absolute discipline of the country” made a huge impression. “This is a no-nonsense society. If you offer a tip to a maid in a hotel she calls her boss to tell you why she can’t take the money,” she recalled.
Mr. Afinowi said the trip had given him a new sense of Africa’s future. “China has come so far so fast. We’re just evolving. We’re not there yet,” he said.