International Scholarships: Regional Studies in Africa

The manner in which scholarships are rolled out has evolved as higher education delivery and opportunity have diversified on the African continent.

June 7, 2015

The manner in which scholarships are rolled out has evolved as higher education delivery and opportunity have diversified on the African continent. This article is prompted by a new “variant” of traditional scholarship programs unveiled recently by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Eastern Africa, supported by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the invitation of DAAD, I served as a member of the panel of experts to select East African universities for the competitive sub-regional scholarship which gave me an opportunity to observe the initiative up close.

This scholarship scheme is unusual in that DAAD first invited universities to submit applications to host graduate students from across the subregion. More than 80 institutions—public and private, large and small, faith-based and non-sectarian, established and new, comprehensive and specialized—from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda—applied. The review panel evaluated 65 institutions for the award in a range of academic disciplines. To enhance the transparency and credibility of the exercise DAAD invited the Inter-University Council for Eastern Africa (IUCEA) to co-chair the selection meeting.

The Selection—and the Intention

After a thorough review of the proposals, the panel (composed of African and expatriate academics) selected 37 institutions from the sub-region to host 165 masters and 135 PhD students. These institutions subsequently announced a call for applications for individual scholarships in the areas of their DAAD award. It is expected that the students selected will reflect the regional and continental diversity intended by the scholarship and that the cohort will not be dominated by national students, as often is the case in similar initiatives.

The New Variant—What is New?

Studying in-country or in-region with scholarships secured from international entities—overseas governments, foundations, or bilateral bodies, including DAAD—is not a new development. A number of “inter-regional” scholarship programmes sponsored by the African Union Commission as well as one funded by the World Bank, both called “Centers of Excellence (COEs)”, come to mind.

Most in-region scholarships do not include provisions for international study, although additional resources are occasionally made available for some students to pursue further study visits abroad. However, the DAAD initiative has included extra funding for overseas experience in order to advance their alumni.

The Established vs the New—An Observation

A consistent pattern was noticeable in the applications submitted to the DAAD scholarship from the universities interested in hosting funded students. Interestingly, the smaller and less well-known institutions generally submitted meticulously prepared applications while applications from well-established institutions were generally weaker and lacking in comparison. The deficient information left the selection panel scrambling for more information—complicating the task of the selection process.

One may wonder, if a complete application is an indication of heightened interest in, and commitment to, the scholarship opportunity.  Is it fair to assume that the sub-standard applications, presented by a good number of the established/flagship universities (or their units), could be construed as lack of interest and commitment? Or is it that the established universities have become complacent and less likely to respond to the extensive information required to establish eligibility?

The DAAD Experience—Ten Aspects

The numerous advantages of international scholarships are well established. “Hybridized” forms of scholarships—internationally-funded scholarships at national/regional African institutions—have been recognized for their positive contributions to higher education. These include: high retention of graduates (less brain drain), relevant curricula and programmes, familiar territory to students, and minimized language/culture/social barriers.

The DAAD experience is an interesting new variant in that it incorporates common practices and more.

  1. Provides a cheaper alternative for scholarship programs, though students may not benefit from the full experience of an overseas studies
  2. Makes possible a larger scholarship cohort (as the cost of study is typically cheaper locally/regionally)
  3. Provides a non-discriminatory and competitive regime that allows all institutions to compete equally
  4. Creates an opportunity for institutions to establish new programs based on anticipated needs and strength
  5. Provides dual capacity building possibilities for staff and institutions—studying and working at same institution
  6. Raises the profile of institutions on the continent  as they advance more self-driven (contrary to externally-enforced) quality enhancement efforts
  7. Responds to national/regional efforts in quality assurance
  8. Expands regional and external scholarship and training opportunities for students
  9. Fosters national and regional mobility of African students and academics
  10. Fosters regionalization and regional integration and help expand the effort of building centers of excellence at sub-regional and continental level.

Furthermore, this scholarship is peculiar in that it does not require institutions or students to be involved with German institutions. The scholarship is free from the usual restrictions that obligate beneficiaries to find partners in the home country of the funding entity. Nevertheless, part of DAAD’s scholarship package often includes research opportunities at German universities, if students indicate interest.

Cooperation—Reality vs Aspiration

The two-step selection process—first, the selection of institutions and second, the selection of students—is neither simple nor cheap. It involves cumbersome logistics for both the applicants and the funders. Successful implementation requires heightened engagement and commitment.

The Paris and Dakar Declaration advocate for joint deployment of resources of many development actors to maximize synergies. If multiple programs could be bundled together to develop similar schemes, the impact of the initiatives would be far reaching. We are however acutely aware of the logistical, administrative and political conundrums that occur with the deployment of such scholarships.


The DAAD scholarship uniquely encourages institutions to compete on their strength, without discriminating by ownership (public/private), faith (religious/non religious), or age (established/new). Furthermore, it does not demand the beneficiaries to partner with German institutions which departs from regular patterns where scholarship programs are often structured to benefit the funding country.

This new variant rolled out by DAAD has a number of traits that other interested parties might consider to help develop and sustain Africa’s human capital. It is however naïve to expect others to immediately follow suit, in the absence of any quid pro quo in such an approach that has been typical of contemporary development cooperation.



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