Half of mobile Arab doctoral students remain abroad

An extraordinary 80% of Arab postgraduate students currently carry out their study abroad. About half of them – especially from the North Africa region – do not return home after graduating, which results in annual losses estimated at more than US$2 billion.

The Arab world has 470 universities and educational institutions catering to 400 million people, roughly translating into 1.2 institutions for every million people, according to a November 2011 Arab research strategy.

There are about nine million students, 10% of whom are in postgraduate studies. Some 80% of postgraduates study abroad, and only 55% of them return home.

“The more expatriates acquire skills and obtain higher degrees abroad, especially graduate-level degrees, the less they are likely to return,” stated a 2012 report, Determinants and Consequences of Migration and Remittances: The case of Palestine and Tunisia.

The Arab brain drain

This emigration trend contributes to a severe Arab brain drain and is threatening the future of higher education development and scientific progress in the Arab world.

Studies have indicated that the emigration of intellectuals from the Arab world accounts for about a third of the total brain drain from developing countries to the West.

Arab countries also lose half of their newly qualified medical doctors, 23% of engineers and 15% of scientists each year, with three-quarters of them moving to the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. This makes Western countries the greatest beneficiaries of 450,000 Arabs with scientific qualifications.

Between 2003 and 2008, for example, the number of Tunisian students in Europe doubled, and the percentage of those staying to work was even higher as these young people are extremely bright, according to a 2012 report titled Youth Brain Drain Continues in the Maghreb.

Also, according to one publication the Algerian university sector lost around 40,000 teachers and researchers during the 1990s, while another report indicates that more than 700 Moroccan researchers at the doctoral level and above work at France’s national research centre.

The cost for Morocco of training those experts was around US$120,550 each. Across Africa, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has estimated that every African professional migrant costs his or her nation US$184,000 and that the price of the brain drain for Africa is up to US$4 billion a year.

Several studies have highlighted a range of political, economic, social and personal factors that contribute to the brain drain.

These include the slow rate of development in Arab countries, a failure to make adequate use of new technologies in the productive sector, low salaries and the relative lack of opportunities for scientific research.

Broader factors include political and social instability in many countries in the region especially after the Arab Spring. Iraq, for instance, is currently suffering a new brain drain as intellectuals flood out of the country to avoid unemployment and assassination attempts.

Tackling the problem

According to another report, The Brain Drain – Academic and skilled migration to the UK and its impact on Africa, universities in developed nations could help to offset the brain drain of skilled workers from poorer countries.

This could be done through transferring resources, technology and knowledge to African nations via exchanges of staff and students, research collaborations and 'twinning' with institutions, along with developing partnerships and networks between scientists and research institutions, with a focus on training for young professionals.

Incentives to encourage students to return home after their studies could be established by creating national and regional centres of excellence in Africa and supporting existing centres.

Also, in Western countries with large numbers of immigrant scientists, existing organisations could be used to encourage researchers to contribute to their home nation’s scientific and higher education development.

Arab states, for example, could support the Network of Arab Scientists and Technologies Abroad to act as a think-tank that would serve as a bridge with Arab countries through consultancies, sabbaticals and information exchange.

The TOKTEN – Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals – programme is used by United Nations agencies and countries – including in North Africa – to get skilled personnel short-term consultancies in their countries of origin.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of the City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications in Alexandria, Egypt, told World University News that it was important to build domestic higher education capabilities and facilitate knowledge transfer into developing nations.

However, “North African countries must strengthen their postgraduate studies institutes to be able to produce scientific workforces at home instead of sending students abroad, which leads to the brain drain of the new generation of top talent.

“For countries, such as Libya, which has the resources to establish advanced postgraduate scientific research and higher education institutes and if needed get foreign experts to train students on national soil, this expensive short-term alternative must be used as a stop-gap,” said Abdel Al.

"For a shortcut to kick-start higher education reform plans, immediate actions are also needed to implement proactive policies that would attract well-trained diaspora members back home.”

* Wagdy Sawahel is a higher education and scientific research advisor in Egypt, general coordinator of the Science Development Network, director of the Virtual Incubator for Science-based Business and a member of the board of trustees of the Arab Organisation for Quality Assurance in Education.