Curbing the brain drain from Africa and Asia

Various studies have found that well-educated people from developing countries are likely to emigrate, hurting their economies and depriving their countries of much-needed expertise in universities.

Now Norwegian researchers may have found a solution to the developing world’s brain-drain conundrum: more than 90% of postgraduate students involved in two Norway-funded programmes for the developing world remained in their country or region of origin after graduating.

How was this possible?

Early last year the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education, or SIU, sought to find out what had happened to masters graduates from two grant programmes funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Norad.

The main focus was Norad’s Programme for Master Studies, or NOMA. Students supported by the Norwegian Programme for Development, Research and Education, or NUFU, were also interviewed.

Nearly 2,000 students in 36 countries were approached and, says SIU, “the response rate of just above 40% was higher than expected”. Qualitative interviews were also conducted with scholarship recipients in three countries: Tanzania, Uganda and Nepal.

The study

The aim of the Graduate Tracer Study was to determine the extent to which NOMA and NUFU had succeeded in building capacity in students’ home countries, and whether the graduates had been able to apply acquired skills in the national or regional workforce.

But it also emerged that the two programmes managed to retain the graduates – even though they could have left their countries to search for opportunities abroad that are rarely found back home in developing economies. The study found that more than 90% of the postgraduates remained in their country or region of origin.

“This is a very important and positive result of the two programmes,” Torill Iversen Wanvik, a senior advisor at SIU, told University World News.

Wanvik said one of the successful aspects of the design of the NOMA programme was probably its concentration on activities in the South. When established in 2006, the NOMA design represented a radical shift with the past in locating its activities in established masters programmes, coupled with scholarship support.

“The inclusion of multilateral programmes and cooperation between universities within the region also opened up opportunities in the regional labour market,” Wanvik said

Graduates remained in Africa, Asia and Latin America as a result of scholarships which were earmarked for newly established masters programmes. The study showed that many of the graduates were recruited by the same institutions that ran the masters programmes or by other higher education institutions in the country or region.

Wanvik noted that although the main focus of the study was on masters graduates, the universities involved were conscious of the need to recruit PhD candidates to enable sustainability of the masters programmes.

Students recruited under the NUFU scheme for PhD studies had to be members of staff, or prospective staff members of the home institution. Scholarships were available to students who had the potential to continue into PhD education and contribute to the strengthening of the institution’s capacity and competence for research and research-based education.

The brain drain problem

“Brain drain is a problem in Africa – people go for greener pastures,” said Dr Wilson Charles Mahera, a mathematician at the University of Dar es Salaam and a NOMA coordinator in Tanzania. The NOMA courses were very relevant to Africa, where capacity building in universities was still sorely needed.

“NOMA programmes came at a time when many new universities were being established in most African countries. That is why most of the NOMA graduates, for example in Tanzania, are currently working in higher learning institutions,” said Mahera.

Also, because of the nature of courses in many NOMA programmes, graduates were able to get jobs in sectors such as health, finance and petroleum development.

Running NOMA in Africa had also enabled students not funded by the programme to benefit. Up to December 2013, there were 120 postgraduates in the University of Dar es Salaam’s maths department and fewer than 42 were NOMA-sponsored. But they had attended the same lectures and used the same computer libraries and so all benefited from the scheme.

Dr Sebalda Leshabari, dean of the school of nursing and NOMA project coordinator at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania, agreed that the principle of training people in their own countries, or within regional collaborative institutions that had similar socio-economic status, contributed to stalling the brain drain.

She said most students were recruited from the institution where they now had positions as junior employees. They had signed a contract to return and teach or start the same programme they had undertaken in their institutions. In all stages of study, students were reminded that they needed to give back what they were getting from the course.

“We need to continue with all these strategies and have a contract so that when students do anything contrary, they then have to pay back heavily. We need to continue recruiting people with commitment to come back and teach others – those who have an interest in teaching.”

Shying away from endorsing the programme as a model for other countries, Wanvik said experience obtained from NOMA and NUFU, and the study findings, would be used to improve ongoing – and hopefully new – initiatives financed by Norway’s government.

The programmes

NOMA was run in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia – Norway’s main partner countries. Other countries that could advance the Norwegian contribution to peace and conflict resolution were also included: Angola, Ethiopia, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

The programme ended in December last year. It had been targeted at institutional capacity building in developing countries through cooperation between universities and research institutions in Norway and corresponding institutions in developing countries.

The collaboration was primarily in the form of research and training of PhD candidates and a limited number of masters students. In addition to the countries that participated in NOMA, the following countries took part in NUFU: Afghanistan, China, East Timor, Eritrea, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and Vietnam.

That scheme focused on joint research projects in the education of masters and PhD candidates and the development of masters and PhD programmes in the South. Both NOMA and NUFU scored successes on many fronts:
  • • 91% of the NOMA masters graduates became employed within 12 months of graduation.
  • • 92% of the NOMA masters graduates and 96% of the NUFU masters graduates are now gainfully employed.
  • • Close to 70% of the NOMA graduates and around 90% of the NUFU graduates have obtained employment relevant to their masters.
Wanvik said the success of the NOMA and NUFU graduates was related to the relevance of the established masters programmes and needs in the national and regional labour markets. In addition, the graduates were highly qualified individuals, many of whom had prior working experience before enrolling in the programmes.

“The retention rate also indicates good correspondence between the relevance of the expertise made available and needs in the labour markets,” she concluded.

Interviews conducted with scholarship recipients from Tanzania, Uganda and Nepal revealed that students from the two African countries had obtained higher salaries and higher ranking positions after obtaining masters degrees. Nepal was different: unemployment was generally higher, and more people were employed by voluntary organisations than by the public sector.