AfricaLive: How would you describe the identity of Unicaf? What makes up your DNA?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Unicaf, with headquarters in Europe, is a leading higher education online platform with students in 158 countries, and also a Scholarship Programme, facilitating Higher Education studies at affordable cost. The state-of-the-art Unicaf digital platform provides access to quality university degree programmes and Professional Courses from reputable partner institutions in the UK, the USA and Africa, and is addressing an underserved part of the Higher Education market through an affordable and flexible online learning model. Current partners include Liverpool John Moores University (UK), the University of East London (UK), the University of Suffolk (UK), the University of California, Riverside Extension (USA), and multi-campus Unicaf University in Africa.
Unicaf is expanding in Africa through a growing network of university campuses and learning centres offering blended and open learning options. Unicaf currently has a physical presence in 12 African countries and has plans to expand to 5 additional countries within the next 2 years.
Unicaf is the leading online higher education platform in Africa, offering high-quality Bachelor, Master’s and Doctoral degrees at a fraction of the cost. Multi-campus Unicaf University offers a wide range of high-quality Bachelor, Master’s and Doctoral degree programmes, while our partner universities in the UK offer cutting edge Master’s degrees, with a strong focus on professional skills.
Unicaf employs the latest technology and innovative tools to improve the effectiveness of instructional methods and enhance the student learning experience.
AfricaLive: When you talk publicly about Unicaf, what one element do people find most surprising?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Firstly, the fact that it was able to expand so rapidly and to reach millions of people in Africa and around the world. Secondly, the fact that through Unicaf University and its partner universities in the UK, Unicaf is able to offer high-quality degrees at a fraction of the cost. Thirdly, that Unicaf and its partner universities have already served more than 40,000 students, by awarding them over $100 million worth of scholarships to study for internationally recognised degrees at a fraction of the cost, and to positively transform their lives. People also find quite interesting the wide range of degree programmes that are offered online and the wealth of learning resources that are made available to Unicaf’s online students.
AfricaLive: Recent events have forced strategic plans across the business world to be re-evaluated and rewritten. What path can we expect Unicaf to take in the coming years? Do you have new strategic objectives for the next decade?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Because of COVID-19 online learning expanded dramatically. Almost all universities had to shift to remote learning to serve their students. In a very short time, everyone had to shift from face-to-face teaching to online, using a variety of technologies. The pandemic provided the catalyst needed for universities to move online and to use digital platforms for teaching and learning.
I believe what was considered to be the future has been accelerated to become the present; and my expectation is that this shift is here to stay, in one form or another. Various technologies, which are employed for online teaching, will reshape learning, both inside the classroom and beyond, well after the present pandemic subsides.
In the same token, regulators have realised how crucial online education is and started encouraging universities to offer online programmes.
During the pandemic, Unicaf was able to demonstrate its capabilities and increase its reach. Unicaf’s state-of-the-art digital platform helped thousands of students to study online towards an internationally recognised degree without being affected by lockdowns and other restrictive measures and without having to visit a physical site. During the last 12 months, we received thousands of applications from students interested to study through online programmes. This is additional proof of Unicaf’s dominance in Africa’s online education market and the strengthening of its brand and reach.
Unicaf and Unicaf University’s strategy is to continue expanding throughout Africa by obtaining additional university licences in new countries and enriching the portfolio of programmes they are offering.
Our software development team will continue developing new state-of-the-art technologies, aiming towards enhancing the existing technologies we use in our digital platform. Such technologies help all our operations become more efficient and more scalable.
AfricaLive: What is your value proposition to potential students over studying at traditional, brick and mortar local universities?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Our platform provides students with a number of key benefits:
• Flexible delivery: Many of our students are working adults with family commitments. The Unicaf state-of-the-art digital platform provides a fully flexible learning environment, allowing students to accommodate work and family responsibilities. Everything students need to complete their studies is embedded into the platform, including a digital library, e-books and other learning resources.
• Qualifications: Through Unicaf, students can earn internationally recognised degrees from Unicaf University, or its British partner universities, at a fraction of the cost. Unicaf University, with a number of campuses in Africa, offers blended and fully online programmes. Unicaf University is a licensed university, recognised and approved locally, and in addition, it is accredited by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education in the UK as an Independent Higher Education Provider. Students are therefore given the opportunity to earn degrees with international recognition and obtain valuable skills and credentials to enrich their professional qualities and help them advance in their careers.
• Scholarships: Students have access to Unicaf Scholarships, which considerably reduces the cost of fees; the remaining balance can be paid in easy monthly instalments. As I have already mentioned, over $100 million worth of scholarships have been offered to eligible students from 158 countries to earn international quality degrees from Unicaf University in Africa or one of our British partner institutions.
Employment: Most students declare that they were able to find a better job, get a promotion in their current job and/or earn more money as a result of their studies with Unicaf. Unicaf University programmes are developed in collaboration with employers to meet their specific needs.
AfricaLive: Increasing access to higher education is fundamental for sustained growth and development on the continent. In your opinion, what should a roadmap to accessible, quality African higher education look like?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Higher Education institutions should strive to equip learners with the necessary skills, knowledge and principles which are needed to contribute to a more inclusive and sustainable future.
Central to the discussion on sustainable development is the imperative of equality in higher education opportunities. This requires governments to focus on increasing current higher education opportunities for students. Taking into consideration that tens of millions of additional students will become of university age in the next decade and the fact that there are no plans to build hundreds of new universities in the continent, the only solution is online learning.
The advances in information and communication technology open up new opportunities for offering quality education in an online format. This will eliminate the need to construct hundreds of physical campuses to accommodate the millions of students in need of higher education. The skilful use of modern technologies can enhance teaching and learning effectiveness and, thus, may substantially contribute towards the goals and objectives associated with sustainable, inclusive growth and development.
Universities should offer holistic and transformational education with high-level quality content. Learning should be stimulating, engaging and learner-centric, leading to successful outcomes for the learners. Universities should inspire learners to be global citizens, assume active roles in the society they live in, and contribute to a more peaceful and sustainable world.
Many new technologies have been developed which can help universities revolutionise the traditional teaching and learning process. More digital platforms incorporate a range of technologies that can enhance the learning experience of learners.
Distance education can eliminate current barriers to higher education in Africa, imposed by space and time, and can dramatically expand access to lifelong learning. Using flexible delivery models, students will no longer have to visit a physical location at specific times and days. A modern higher education institution, such as Unicaf University, no longer has to be at any specific physical location but, through the use of technology, can exist anywhere, anytime for students who wish to access study materials and complete a particular academic programme fully online.
AfricaLive: What responsibility do you believe institutions of higher learning have when it comes to fostering values and ethics in their students and in future African leaders?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Fostering values and ethics in students should, I believe, be at the heart of pedagogical and andragogical approaches to teaching and learning. Many of the priorities set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals highlight the urgent need for quality education (SDG4) and the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG16). This is further emphasised in the UN’s Academic Impact initiative, an organisation leading the global higher education sector in the promotion and protection of human rights, and in developing accessible and sustainable education. At Unicaf we have embedded the principles of values-based learning in our organisational practices and teaching methods. Examples of these include our zero-tolerance policies to counter the proliferation of extremist views or activities; the contracts we establish with our teaching staff to build fair, inclusive and transparent teaching practices, and the promotion of discussions on ethical practices in many of the programmes of study we facilitate. Higher Education institutions are, for many, the custodians of knowledge. We take this responsibility seriously and lead our students by example.
For the African leaders of the future, Agenda 2063 sets out the need to refocus and reprioritise Africa’s agenda. From the struggle against apartheid and the attainment of political independence, (which is the goal of the Organisation of African Unity), to the support of the need to build inclusive social and economic development and regional integration, the Higher Education sector must offer programmes that apply academic theory and knowledge into contemporary practice. Educating Africa’s future leaders is very important, as they are the ones who will strive to reposition Africa as a dominant global player. To support this goal, Unicaf continues to develop a suite of modern and affordable programmes, which offer specialist knowledge, underpinned by values-based ethical principles and practices, something that all Higher Education providers should be doing.
AfricaLive: “Business as usual” has brought the world to a point of environmental disaster. Should higher education institutions have been more proactive in creating an understanding of what sustainability truly means?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: The “Business as usual” approach has forced nations to acknowledge that a global framework is needed to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen countries’ ability to deal with climate change impacts and support them in their efforts. Most learning centres have acknowledged the climate emergency our planet faces, yet action to tackle this emergency seems a little slow. For campus-based universities, the challenge of reducing their TCO2 and waste is huge. For example, many have very large buildings, often located at multiple sites, housing libraries, classrooms and lecture theatres, demanding huge energy consumption for heating, lighting and so on. I noted recently that several national education agencies are now taking the initiative to guide Higher Education institutions to implement action; for example, the UK’s Office for Students recently published guidance for the sector to meet the targets set out in the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education (January 2021). For traditional centres of learning, the problem cannot be overestimated. In August last year, the UN Secretary-General stated that the education sector must invest in digital literacy and infrastructure and look to evolve towards learning how to learn, rejuvenate lifelong learning, and strengthen links between formal and non-formal education. He suggested the need to draw on flexible delivery methods, digital technologies and modernised curricula while ensuring sustained support for teachers and communities. This is exactly what Unicaf already does; we offer blended and fully online education, which is accessible, flexible and affordable. Of course, we acknowledge that we can do more as a responsible and sustainable organisation. Even though our students gain their university qualifications at a fraction of the carbon and waste impact of campus-based universities, we have stated that we will be net-carbon zero by 2035, which is 15 years ahead of the UN’s 2050 target. Again, Unicaf is leading by example.
AfricaLive: It is often stated there is a disconnect on the continent between the needs of employers and the output of universities.
What is your approach to creating ties with industry?
In relation to employability, what do you consider to be the role of a university?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Employability is vital for university students in Africa and is central to the mission and operation of Unicaf University. Universities should provide the appropriate skills, which will enable graduates to enter the marketplace. To achieve this, universities should take into serious consideration the needs of employers and of the marketplace in the geographies they serve.
Critical to the employment of graduates is the development of higher education programmes of study with the engagement of employers. The collaboration with employers and industry should aim to provide learners with the appropriate skills relevant to the sectors they will apply for employment.
Universities should be committed to increasing the employability of their graduates through the following actions:
- Offering career advice to students
- Offering work placement opportunities, in partnership with industry
- Establishing partnerships with employers
- Designing programmes that focus on developing professional skills
- Involving employers in curriculum design and delivery
Universities should work closely with employers while developing new programmes, to consider the type of skills and knowledge needed by the targeted industry. Projects, case studies and assignments should be relevant to real industry cases and needs.
AfricaLive: What is necessary for successful international partnerships to be formed in higher education?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: Unicaf is a pioneer in international partnerships since its founding. A number of partnerships with US, European and UK universities were formed aiming to provide opportunities for students in Africa to earn internationally recognised degrees.
International partnerships between universities are very important to faculty and students, but also to the partnering organisations. Internationalisation, with ease of travel and instant communication, made it even easier for academic institutions to collaborate in areas such as student exchange, joint programmes and research.
Through such partnerships, Unicaf’s partner universities can expand in the African continent and make their programmes available online, utilising Unicaf’s state-of-the-art digital platform.
The success of such partnerships depends on a shared understanding of the market, goodwill, close collaboration and shared interests and goals.
AfricaLive: Will the launch of AfCFTA have an impact upon pan-African collaboration in higher education?
Dr Nicos Nicolaou: I believe that the launch of AfCFAT will make it easier for a pan-African collaboration in Higher Education. The creation of a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments, will definitely help develop collaboration opportunities among Higher Education institutions across Africa.
The planned integration of Africa will have a number of positive effects in higher education and will open up a number of opportunities for cross- borders collaborations.
With a population of 1.2 billion projected to reach 1.4 billion by 2040, Africa will become one of the biggest Free Trade Areas with a very high commercial significance. This is good news for Higher Education too, and will heighten collaboration opportunities among universities in Africa in the areas of teaching, learning and research.