Bringing Northern England to the tropics

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Raghav Lal
Raghav Lal

A partnership between an education business in the Middle East and a leading university from North-West England, Lancaster University in Ghana will soon graduate its first alumni. Here, Raghav Lal explains the young institution’s unique mission to Martin Ince.

Lancaster University is a research-led institution situated in north-west England, but its core campus in West Africa has its roots in the Middle East. Lancaster’s partner, Transnational Academic Group (TAG), also manages the Dubai branch campuses of Murdoch University and Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

Raghav Lal, CEO of Transnational Academic Group – West Africa, explains that the substantial number of Ghanaian, Nigerian, Ivorian, Kenyan, and South African studying in the Accra campus is a clear indication that African employers are demanding enhanced skills from graduates, achieved through research-backed teaching and learning techniques, offered by world-class universities. Lancaster University Ghana is currently the only institution in sub-Saharan Africa conferring world-class UK degrees from a core campus supported by a top-10 UK university and sharing its values and its approach to quality.

Of TAG’s decision to work with Lancaster, Lal says: “We liked Lancaster’s approach to the student experience, as well as its research base and its standing in UK university league tables.” Ghana was selected as the location on the basis of its good business climate and political stability, typified in December 2016 by its peaceful general election and subsequent change of government. Ghana is attractive to students seeking a viable alternative to travelling outside Africa for a globally recognised university education. Students from all over Africa are studying in Lancaster University Ghana, including those from Uganda, the DRC, Kenya, South Africa, and neighbouring countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

The university admitted its first foundation students in 2013, and offered full undergraduate programmes a year later. The first graduation ceremony was held in September of this year with as many as 90 students graduating from its inaugural class. Undergraduate students are currently the main focus, but the intention over time is to develop the university’s postgraduate offering and its research capacity, focussing especially on regional issues.

Ghana is exceptionally rich in universities, from the University of Ghana (ranked 958 in the world by QS this year) to many smaller and more specialist providers, for example institutions serving the burgeoning local oil industry. But Lal explains that these institutions vary in quality and often have limited resources, whereas the Lancaster branch campus offers the same resources to its students as at the home base in the UK. In addition, the UK link is seen as a guarantee of quality. Lal explains: “Many private institutions opened but have subsequently closed, due to quality shortcomings and changes to the Ghanaian tax system.”

The university now has 550 students in rented space in the capital, Accra, and is buying land for a dedicated campus. This will allow student numbers to rise towards an eventual target of about 4,000, and will permit new subjects such as engineering and environmental science to be added. The Lancaster Environment Centre in the UK, Lal says, already has a strong focus on Africa. He adds: “Our experience suggests that branch campuses don’t normally get bigger than about 5,000 students unless there is a very strong business case.”

At the moment, he says, Lancaster in Ghana is focussed on the humanities and social sciences, including law, business, computer science, marketing and international relations. The Ghana campus’s commitment to the community is borne out by plans to establish a Centre for West African Studies, and to build centres for entrepreneurship in key areas. The intention is to grow research and entrepreneurship side-by-side in areas such as health, sanitation, waste management, and water supply. Lal says: “60% of the Ghana economy is dependent on agriculture and most start-ups, for example those funded by USAID, are in that area.”

Lancaster intends to build up research, professional development and start-up skills in new areas, and will use this knowledge to enrich its teaching offerings. The curriculum emphasises employability, and there are active links to business, so that 100 of the campus’s students had internships this year. Its premium postgraduate offering is the Lancaster EMBA, one of the UK’s best-regarded business qualifications and a major draw for students already in work, and there are plans to add a LLM and an MSc in management.

Lal says: “The link to business education in Lancaster is a very positive one for our business group, which is commercially active across Africa. We publish Forbes [the international business magazine] in Africa and have the franchise for CNBC [the influential global business news channel] in 52 countries. We also have a major IT business in South East Asia. So, we are well experienced in media and business across the region and beyond.”

English links

The basic offer from Lancaster University Ghana is a UK-quality education in Africa, at locally affordable prices. Lal says, “We invest a lot in instilling core Lancaster values in Ghana.” To ensure UK standards, teaching staff have to study for the UK Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. In addition, they all spend some time in Lancaster; 33 were in the UK Bailrigg campus for a week or more last summer. There is also very active student exchange. Some spend a whole year in the UK, others a semester. Many senior Lancaster faculty from the UK have been in Ghana for lengthy periods, especially from subject areas such as business and computer sciences, and the deputy provost responsible for academic quality is a Lancaster appointment.

At the moment, the university has 44 academic staff, 21 of them full-time. Lal expects the Ghanaian diaspora to be a fruitful source of new staff as the institution grows. He says: “We have already hired six Ghanaians who had been working in the UK, the US, Canada and elsewhere, and who want to be here. In addition, people from other West African nations can move to Ghana, say from Europe, and be a lot closer to their families.”

Lal estimates that a Lancaster degree in Accra comes at about a quarter of the cost of one in the UK, making it a natural choice for a group he describes as “conservative millennials,” with ambition but without the inclination or financial capacity to make a big international move. They know that a Lancaster degree will impress universities and employers around the world and also allow them to go abroad for postgraduate study. He also adds that African students appear to be averse to financial risk. They are sensitive to volatile exchange rates, and Nigerian students are now travelling to the UK in smaller numbers as a result of Naira currency weakness. Lancaster started out as one of the dearer offers in Ghanaian higher education, but is now closer to the average for all public and private suppliers. “We are not at the top end of the price range, and there are public and private suppliers who charge more than us,” says Lal, “but neither are we competing with the very high-volume private providers.” The university has spent about $750,000 on student support to date, mainly as scholarships to deserving students.

However, there is no point pretending that a branch campus in Ghana can succeed by replicating what the parent body does back in England. One recurring issue within and beyond Ghana is the quality of African school education, which can leave students ill-prepared for independent learning in the university environment. Lal says that maths skills are generally poor among new students and although English is widely spoken in Ghana, there is a big gap between this conversational English and the sort needed for academic success. Both subjects are emphasised in the Foundation Year and Lal reports that the students enjoy the ability, rare in a Ghanaian school, to challenge and question their teachers. “These students are a lot more confident and forthcoming than our students in Dubai,” says Lal. “You’d be surprised how many Nigerians and Ghanaians end up running activities in the Lancaster Summer School.”

The campus’s expansion into research will also have a local flavour, with major themes tied in to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The university has already sponsored awards to support the development of research projects and the teams to carry them out. The new campus will have a purpose-built Centre for West African Studies with four or five major research themes, qualified senior staff, research assistants and PhD students. Nor is this the limit to TAG’s African ambitions. Encouraged by its experience in Ghana, TAG is working with other partners to develop campuses in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, with oil and gas engineering as well as health and nursing education as possible subject areas.

Raghav Lal is the CEO of Transnational Academic Group – West Africa (Lancaster University Ghana). He joined Global Institute Middle East (now Transnational Academic Group) in 2007 to set up the Murdoch University campus in Dubai. He became project director of Trans National Education in 2013 with responsibility for the expansion of the education business across the African Continent, starting with the Lancaster University Campus in Ghana. Raghav completed his schooling at the Doon School in India and his undergraduate studies at Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts, where he completed his Bachelor of Science in finance and management. He later completed his MBA from Murdoch University.