The African Union (AU) is testing out a passport allowing for visa-free movement across the continent for citizens of African countries in a move to encourage student mobility.

The AU passport was launched in July, but is currently only available to heads of state, AU officials, and some government officials. It is expected to be rolled out to all 54 member states by 2020.

There is an ongoing trend among African nations to do away with visa requirements for African nationalities, and the AU believes it will help save member countries the millions of dollars going towards tuition fees at universities overseas.

However, the plan doesn’t come without some challenges pre-implementation: details regarding standardization, capacity, credit transfer, and whether South Africa is on board are the main issues that will be of concern.

Over the past couple of years, three countries – Rwanda, Ghana, and Benin – have totally scrapped entry visas for Africans, a move many experts believe will boost the higher education sector across the continent.

Kenya has also abolished student visa requirements for citizens from the East African Community regional bloc, which has helped its growing higher education sector, particularly fledgling private institutions.  

As a result, the East African country has seen an increase in the number of students from Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, which nearly doubled in the past year, from 2,500 to 4,500.

But one country appears to be bucking the trend: rather than relaxing visa requirements for Africans, South Africa, one of the continent’s most developed countries, has instead tightened them in a bid to stave off the flow of economic migrants.

Speaking to PIE News, Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer at Kenya’s Kenyatta University in Nairobi, said: “South Africa has the best and most sought-after universities on the continent but contrary to the direction being taken by other African countries, it is tightening entry requirements, making it harder for foreign students to access education in the country’s famed universities.”

South Africa is one of Africa’s leading providers of higher education, with many of its institutions making the top ranks for the region, such as University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, and Stellenbosch University.

“Unless the country agrees to relax entry requirements introduced in recent years, African students will continue having problems accessing education in the country and opting for places like India, which have a more open policy,” Mbataru added.

Mbataru also mentioned the need for more collaboration between African institutions to improve the international student experience.

“Universities in Africa do not have strong linkages with each other and this is one area that would need to be strengthened. We need to establish whole directorates of foreign linkages and collaborations to be able to attract foreign students,” he suggested.

Felicia Kuagbedzi, communications and publications officer for the Association of African Universities, told University World News that the association anticipated broader promotion of student and faculty mobility on the continent as nations would be able to attract and retain some measure of talent for the economy and research systems of the host country.

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