When your African diploma is only half as good

If you’ve been studying at university for years, you expect your degree to mean something. How hard would it be if your diploma is halved in value, for example, because you happened to get it on the “wrong” continent? Yet that is exactly the point of a text that was briefly published this spring on the website of the Amsterdam Business School (ABS), a study program of the University of Amsterdam (UvA).

‘A bachelor’s degree from Africa,’ prospective students read, ‘is generally worth two years of Dutch university education, meaning students from the African continent (except South Africa and Ghana) must obtain another master’s degree. to be eligible for our masters program. ‘ A UvA alumni with a Dutch master’s degree and a Kenyan degree who wishes to remain anonymous was shocked by the news. “Apparently, universities these days are openly racist. Is my diploma lower? “

The text that was on the ABS website for a short time.

After the complaints, the ABS changed the message and in a reply the university admits that the original message contained inaccuracies. “It was too general.” The new message only contains credential assessments of specific countries with reference to Nuffic, a Dutch organization committed to internationalization of education, for example indicating how diplomas from different countries relate to each other.

The question is whether this really makes the text different. In the Nuffic list, the diplomas of most of the countries of the South of the world1 rated lower. Students from those countries would therefore have to study longer to reach a level equivalent to a Dutch study program. Nuffic himself states that the list should be read as advice on what an “average” program is worth. However, the list is influential and virtually all higher education institutions have adopted it (see box). To what extent do these lists exclude foreign students?

How universities and colleges use the Nuffic list

Almost all Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences use the Nuffic list in one way or another, says a spokesperson for the organization. Investigations with ten Dutch universities confirm this. But there is a difference in how they use the list.

The Free Universitythe University of Amsterdam and the Ventennio University they say they use Nuffic as the most important source when evaluating foreign diplomas.

The universities of TilburgFor drivingUtrecht And Groningen they developed their own criteria, with Nuffic as one of the sources.

And then there are the universities of NijmegenWageningen And Delftthat use the Nuffic list in combination with lists of other organizations of the ENIC-NARIC European recognition network, of which Nuffic is also a part.

False certainty and laziness

According to Law on Higher Education and Scientific Research all students must meet the same requirements to be able to participate in university courses. Universities invoke this law if they impose strict requirements on students from abroad. However, the law does not specify how foreign diplomas are to be assessed, nor does it refer to the Nuffic list as an adequate guideline.

To evaluate a country’s education system, Nuffic uses five criteria: the level of education (such as secondary school or university); workload in years and credits; quality based on internal figures and how high they are in international rankings; the nature of the training (is it professional or academic, multidisciplinary or specialist?) and finally: the learning outcomes. The latter weigh more. Learning outcomes are the knowledge and skills that students should have upon completion of their education.

Most admissions committees don’t have the time or resources to individually evaluate students

Paul Zeleza is the rector of United States International University-Africa (USIU), a university in Nairobi with accreditation (a legal seal of approval) in Kenya and the United States. He is skeptical of the generalization of the guidelines. They give a false sense of security and arise from laziness. “Most admissions committees don’t have the time or resources to evaluate students individually,” Zeleza said. If a university adopts the Nuffic list, the “burden of proof” then falls on the student, so to speak.

And that’s not the intention. According to the world Convention for the recognition of qualifications in higher education the burden of proof for an alleged “material difference” between programs rests with the educational institution and not with the student. The student must also be given the opportunity to challenge a decision. This is in contrast to the generalist country guidelines used by the universities of Wageningen, Delft, Eindhoven, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.2 The University of Zeleza does not want to participate. “We try to base our estimate as much as possible on personal interviews. This gives a much better picture of the student. ”

Not worse, still no recognition

Zeleza is also critical of the importance of learning outcomes. “Of course we all like to write good results for our universities and programs. But how do you check if this has been achieved? “Do you think you can better measure learning outcomes by looking at students’ success after their education.” Are they equipped enough to get good grades in other universities? job market? It would be better research questions. “

For the credentials assessment manual, Nuffic interviewed hundreds of employees in European higher education. However, Paul Zeleza is not impressed. “None of my colleagues have ever been asked for an opinion. Some countries have historically tended to present their provincial knowledge and vision as something universal ”.

USIU in Zeleza once started as a branch of an international American university, but has since separated. “Because we are accredited in the United States, our students have no problem with international applications,” says Zeleza. “But that doesn’t mean we teach better than Nairobi University.” Yet a college degree from a University of Nairobi student is worth less. According to the Nuffic guideline, a 4-year degree from Kenya is equivalent to 2 years of Dutch university education, while a science degree is recognized from the United States.

As many students from Cyprus have come to the Netherlands for training as from the entire African continent

Zeleza believes that in any case it is impossible to evaluate students on the basis of their previous education. Many of them have simply never had a chance to get a good education, but that doesn’t mean they won’t save themselves when they finally get that chance. She gives the example of a student from Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods, who was accepted as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University last year after graduating with honors from USIU. “According to the usual guidelines, we should never have accepted it. But with the right guidance, she has blossomed, “Zeleza says.

Hardly any students from Africa

Nodumo Dhlamini, a senior manager at the Association of African Universities, also disagrees with the view that most African university degrees are poor. On the contrary, he would say: “Since we have little space in universities, only the best and most motivated students enter.” This is why Dhlamini asks: “Does Nuffic have examples of African students who have failed in European programs?” The Nuffic spokesperson said the guidelines were never strengthened after the students’ failure signals. “But the fact that we haven’t received any signals from failing students primarily means that we are doing our job well.”

The University of Amsterdam acceptance rate for international students is only 4%, while Dutch students practically get in anyway. Furthermore, foreign students seem to come mainly from Western countries. More than 71 percent of foreign master’s students in 2019 were from an ENIC-NARIC country.3 China and India “provided” 17 percent and Latin America and Africa 3.4 and 1.4 percent of foreign master’s students respectively. From Cyprus, which has fewer than 50,000 students, as many people from the entire African continent came to study in the Netherlands, with around 10 million students.

There are, of course, multiple factors at play in these numbers, such as socioeconomic conditions or differences in visa policies. Yet it seems that the recognition of the diploma also plays a role. In every country in the top 25 countries where foreign master’s students come from, some of the undergraduate degrees are rated as equivalent by Nuffic. Plus, your marketing efforts will also have an impact. All universities contacted report that they do not do marketing in countries where undergraduate degrees are considered insufficient for participation in a Dutch university program.

The West allowed African education to be curtailed

To combat educational inequality, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the “Orange Knowledge Program”, consisting of scholarships and other educational support for various countries in the global South. On an annual basis, this amounts to 44 million euros. By way of comparison: the Dutch contribution to the European Erasmus + program is at least € 198 million per year.4 The money is therefore mainly available for the internationalization of education in regions which are already easily integrated into Dutch higher education and where socio-economic urgency is relatively low.

“Supporting education in Africa and African students is not simply a question of generosity,” says rector Zeleza. He also believes it is a duty. “The West, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, played an important role in reducing African higher education in the 1980s and 1990s.” Both banks are dominated by Western countries. Due to a global crisis, nearly all African governments needed loans, but in return they had to cut hard cuts, including to education, despite large-scale resistance. Zeleza: “We have enormous demographic pressure to educate young Africans. The West must now take responsibility. “

This article originally appeared on Oneworld.nl on September 3, 2021.


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  1. OneWorld is still looking for an alternative to the countries we used to call “developing countries”. As long as there is no such word, one speaks of the South of the world. Read more about our language choices here.
  2. The University of Wageningen indicates that the guidelines are not binding. However, this is not clearly stated on the website and therefore such guidelines can have a strong discouraging effect on prospective students.
  3. ENIC-NARIC is a network in which, in addition to all European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel are also represented; in practice it is therefore an educational organization for the countries of the Global North.
  4. Calculated on the basis of the Dutch share in the entire budget of the European Union, which funds the Erasmus program.

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