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Nicos Nicolaou, UNICAF, Cyprus

Since 2012, UNICAF has provided almost $30m in scholarships to students in sub-Saharan Africa. CEO, Nicos Nicolaou, speaks to The PIE about how the programme is increasing access to higher education through online degrees.

The PIE: Can you tell us about UNICAF?

"I think we can also consider the fact that in some of these countries the stability of the country is such that they find it very difficult to study consistently"

NN: UNICAF was set up to increase access in Africa in higher education. We know from data that millions of students in Africa do not have access to higher education, more importantly to qualifications that have international recognition. So UNICAF is partnering with institutions in the UK, in the US and Europe to offer opportunities to these students – high quality degrees with international recognition that are offered at a very low cost online.

We are providing scholarships to students. As an example, a student that would pay in the UK to get an MBA degree £12,000, and have the living costs, transportation costs and everything else, they are able to get such a degree with only £3,000. So this is an example of the kind of opportunities that we’re offering to students.

“We have awarded up to now, close to $30m worth of scholarships to students”

I’m one of the founders and we have been open since 2012. We now have close to 5,000 students, most of them studying postgraduate qualifications. This number is increasing at a high rate daily. We have awarded up to now, close to $30m worth of scholarships to students. We hope that we’re making a significant difference in the lives of these students.

The PIE: Who are your university partners and how do you work with them?

NN: In the UK, we have the University of South Wales, which has study partnerships. We started with the MBA and the BA Business Studies, a top up degree. Now we’re introducing MA Education and MSc Business Psychology and we have plans to offer law and other programmes. As we develop the partnership we’re increasingly offering more programmes depending on what their needs of the market are.

In the US we have a partnership with Marymount California University, and we have the University of Nicosia [in Cyprus]. So we have options for students to study a European degree, UK degree or a US degree. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult for an African student to afford to come to the UK or the US and spend thousands on their education.

The PIE: How does a student in Africa benefit from a UNICAF scholarship?

NN: The student ends up paying a much lower cost. Usually they pay approximately 20% of what they would have paid if they had studied directly with institutions, travelling to the US or the UK, in some cases even more. On average they get about 80% scholarship. Normally a student would be paying £300-£400 a month towards their tuition. In many cases they cannot even afford that so we end up increasing the scholarship or allowing them to make smaller payments over a longer duration – we’re trying in every way we can to assist the students.

“We expect that in the next five years we would have over 100,000 students studying through UNICAF as the programme is expanding”

We have a lot of cases of students that have stopped their studies because they don’t have enough money, so we extend the period, we allow them to accumulate more money so that they can continue, or we help them by increasing the amount of scholarship. But overall, most of our students are able to afford to pay towards the fees provided they get this percentage of scholarship.

The PIE: How many people does UNICAF employ?

NN: We have over 150 people now working for UNICAF, and about 50% of these people are in the academic departments, so they’re either teaching or they’re supporting students academically in one form or another. And we expect that in the next five years we would have over 100,000 students studying through UNICAF as the programme is expanding. Currently we have about 5,000 students.

Everyone who works for UNICAF goes through training so they can understand the challenges associated with offering such programmes to African students. Typically because students haven’t been exposed to the technology we’re using and to online studies, our faculty for example, they have to understand that these are not your average UK or US student that are much more aware in a sense that they know about online learning.

We have to be very patient with these students, we have to be very caring and we have to be willing to offer a lot more support. We want to create a culture within the organisation, we care a lot about the students and we have to because if they don’t have the right amount of support, they will just drop out. Students are supported so they can stick with the programme and be able to graduate.

The PIE: How many students have graduated from a UNICAF scholarship programme?

NN: We’ve only had I think about 200-300 students that studied with us enough time to graduate. Even students that haven’t graduated yet, we have a lot of stories that they sent us – some of them have started their own business, they were able to progress so they got a promotion.

“A lot of international firms are currently setting up offices or operations in Africa and they’re looking for people that have qualifications that they recognise”

A lot of international firms are currently setting up offices or operations in Africa and they’re looking for people that have qualifications that they recognise. A lot of these students are being hired as they study. Most of our students are currently in employment. The profile of a student is between the age of 25 and 40 years old so they’re mature students, they’re not a typical 18 year old finishing high school.

The PIE: What regions in Africa do you see the most enrolments from?

NN: Number one is Nigeria, by far. Then we have Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana. Those are the top four markets for us.

The PIE: What are some of the challenges online education present for students in Africa and how are you overcoming them?

NN: Obviously the main challenges have to do with infrastructure with some of these countries. We have some students who are finding it difficult to study because they don’t have power or they don’t have internet. So we designed the platform in a way that is allowing the students to download the material and study even when they don’t have internet. And also we allow them to have the flexibility at different times of the day. It’s 24 hours a day that they can access any of our platforms so that when they have electricity, they can still access the material. So I would say this is one of the challenges – the technical infrastructure in some of these countries.

From the perspective of the student, I think we can also consider the fact that in some of these countries, the stability of the country is such that they find it very difficult to study consistently so they take breaks. We exercise more flexibility that we would not normally exercise in a ground environment. Each student has an advisor so we have a lot of communication back and forth with the students to advise them on how to proceed with the problem or other issues they have. So the challenge of being in such an environment that you have to provide a lot of support for the students.

The PIE: Are you expanding in any other countries in Africa?

“75% of our students are accessing our platforms using a mobile device, because most people don’t have a landline”

NN: Yes, we initially targeted sub-Saharan Africa, but recently we are very successful also in countries like Egypt. We’re now having a lot of enquiries from Egypt and we find that these are high quality students so we are adding that to our list. The rest of sub-Saharan Africa, we’re targeting every single country.

The PIE: How do students find out about UNICAF?

NN: Seventy five percent of our students are accessing our platforms using a mobile device, because most people don’t have a landline – they skipped a generation, let’s say, so they went straight from no telephones to smartphones. Most of our students are using their mobile devices so everything we do is designed so that’s it’s accessible from a mobile device.

And also we are using technology that enables students to access everything we do without having a very high bandwidth. It’s not very heavy, let’s say, on video and images which would make it difficult for them to access.

The PIE: Do graduates tend to stay in their own countries or move overseas?

NN: I think the majority of them are staying because, like I said, we’re dealing mostly with mature students – almost all of them already have professional or family commitments. They want to utilise the UNICAF scholarship because they want to have a better position, they are always trying to improve their employment and they’re trying to get jobs with international firms. And a lot of them do because we know from speaking to these firms that they’re not finding enough qualified people. So we are also helping international firms go and invest in Africa because they can find qualified people to work for them.

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5 Responses to Nicos Nicolaou, UNICAF, Cyprus

  1. This is an excellent interview from the CEO of UNICAF, It clearly shows the concept and the target the University go for. What id attractive on this interview is that it clearly shows the target of assisting people who cannot afford to study abroad yet equally can successfully achieve the same goals.

    Well Done!!

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