AFRICA: Continental student mobility scheme expanded

The major expansion of a pan-African student mobility scheme was announced in Cape Town last week. The European Union has committed EUR35 million (US$46.5 million) to the Mwalimu Nyerere African Scholarship Scheme, which is aimed at promoting student exchange and stemming the African brain drain. It will provide scholarships for 250 postgraduate students to study in another African country.

Established four years ago, the Mwalimu Nyerere African Scholarship Scheme is named after Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first post-independence president of Tanzania who championed self-reliance and socialism with a strong vision for education and social action.

It is an African Union project - one of several higher education revitalisation initiatives - designed to enable young Africans to study in leading higher education institutions across the continent. In return they agree to work in any African country for two years after graduation.

The extended scheme, which will run for four years from 2011 and switches from undergraduate to postgraduate students, was announced at a "Nyerere: Supporting Academic Mobility and Revitalisation of Higher Education in Africa" meeting in Cape Town from 23-24 November. The meeting was a side-event to the 3rd EU-Africa summit.

The European Union has awarded EUR45 million (US$60 million) to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, with EUR35 million going to African Union Commission for the expanded scholarship project.

Masters and doctoral students in Africa are encouraged to apply to higher education institutions in other African countries and to universities that will be in the partnership. The funding covers all fees related to tuition and examination, return transport from home to the university, and a modest subsistence allowance.

At least three African regions are being targeted and partnerships between higher education institutions are being encouraged. The funding will separately support students, staff and the partner institution.

For the EU, the desire is simple but grand.

Nils Janson, deputy head of EU delegation, told the Cape Town meeting that he hoped the African Union would develop an exchange programme that rivaled Erasmus Mundus, the EU scheme named after the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, who studied in different monastic schools in Europe in the 15th century.

The idea of the scholarships is to provide an alternative for postgraduate students to studying outside Africa, said Christoff Pauw, coordinator of South-South networks in the division of research development at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. "Intra-African mobility is a great problem. But these are substantial scholarships, large enough for students to live well."

Pauw said the themes selected for the Nyrerere scheme were focused on science and technology. "Despite all the lip-service for leadership and capacity development paid by officials in Africa, there is no provision for the social sciences and humanities. It is shortsighted. We will make a strong proposal to add one or two themes outside science."

Most EU development support for education is channeled through country programmes. But the expanded Nyrerere scheme will be available to consortia of universities who want to devise joint programmes.

Denis Salord, head of centralised operations for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, said the scheme would bring together university leaders and student unions to monitor its progress and ensure its success.

The head of the Education, Audio-Visual and Culture Executive Agency of the European Union, Joachim Fronia, said the scheme would be managed by both his organisation and AU. The African Commission will take over after two to three years.

But what happens when the funding runs out? "If we jointly make this programme a success, every year the funder will decide to increase the resources. These are the conditions that we have," Fronia beamed optimistically.

Given the magnitude of the project and its objective to promote brain circulation and stem the brain drain, in the corridors of the AU great efforts are being made to make the Nyerere scheme work as smoothly as possible.

"This is a departure from the norm, where traditionally scholarships have been awarded for Africans to train outside the continent," said Brenda Ngosi, director of the department of human resources, science and technology of the African Union Commission.

But research has shown that many African students who study outside the continent do not come back. "If trained here [Africa] they will mostly remain, addressing the inadequacy of qualified professionals and encouraging intra-mobility," she said. Ngosi commended the EU for its support, saying it would enable the Nyerere scheme to be considerably expanded.

"The shortage of skilled people is an old story in Africa. With a vision anchored in human resources we need enabling policy structures for education," Beatrice Njenga, head of the education division at African Union Commission told University World News.

Njenga said mechanisms should be created so that qualifications from various institutions were understood and to ensure that graduates from the programme are easily employed in Africa. Intra-African collaboration drives African human resources development, but access to tertiary education remains low and "we need to at least double it", she added.

Concern has been expressed that mobility between Anglophone and Francophone countries could be impeded by language. But Jean-Claude Boidin, head of human development, social cohesion and employment for the ACP states, said language differences added value to mobility in higher education. "We do not see language as a barrier but as a vehicle of communication. Diversity of language is promoted through mobility," he said.

Renata Russell, a EuropeAid official, said benefits of the Nyerere scheme would also accrue to participating universities as it would improve cooperation and spread of best practices and would strengthen their ability to manage flows of foreign students. In the long-term there would also be increased political, cultural, educational and economic links between ACP countries.

Some fears were expressed that poorer higher education institutions from smaller African countries would lose out.

Ad Boeren, a senior policy advisor of NUFFIC, the Netherlands organisation for international cooperation in higher education, told University World News that only institutions able to efficiently manage funds from donors would participate in the scheme, which would put smaller institutions at a disadvantage. He suggested that mechanisms be developed to enable small but capable institutions to join in.