Talent of study abroad graduates is under-used – Study

African and European cooperation has produced a growing number of African graduates who have studied abroad. But the continent is not benefitting as much as it should from their world-class talent because, although the graduates want to contribute to capacity building in their fields, local conditions are not conducive, a recent study found.

The study revealed that most Africans who partly or fully studied for degrees, masters or doctorates in Europe through European Union-funded programmes and returned to their home countries, and African academic diaspora based in European universities, were keen to contribute to higher education in Africa.

But the Study on the Contribution of the Alumni and Diaspora to the Joint Africa-EU Strategy found that conditions in Africa on many levels were not attractive enough to fully use their acquired skills.

The study

African graduates of Erasmus Mundus and study programmes such as the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD and French-funded courses — both academics resident on the continent and those based in the diaspora — shared their views in research aimed at exploring their potential to improve higher education in Africa.

As a means to cement the Joint Africa-EU Strategic Partnership, the study by the European Union traced migration, mobility and employment opportunities for graduates.

African graduates offered EU-funding and grants from national institutions in Germany and France were highly optimistic about bringing change to African higher education through short-term or long-term teaching, supervision of masters and PhD theses, joint research and sharing research results.

Among the African countries that have benefitted the most from the grant schemes are Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia and Uganda.

In all, 32 African countries are identified as having developed academic diaspora offices to manage the affairs of academics trained abroad.

Mobilising academic diaspora skills

African academics in the diaspora said in the study that they were prevented from fully contributing to higher education development in Africa due to poor infrastructure and badly maintained facilities in institutions and a shortage of materials, specifically for research.

Some respondents in the study carried out in 2014 said that there was no use in having 15 researchers in a laboratory if they did not each have an office.

Others who attempted to return to their country of origin or become more involved in higher education development outside their country of origin complained about lack of incentives and financial support from African governments.

African governments were cited as not being proactive in improving a situation in which there were no official platforms via which the African diaspora could contribute to or interact with higher education in a channelled way.

Academics said there were a variety of ideas and concepts regarding involving African diaspora academics, but there were rarely official policies on how to execute these.

Some academics reported difficulties in trying to interact with local professors who often mistrusted them. There were fears among African professors that diaspora people could become competitors.

“This may result in a lack of interest and even refusal to collaborate with the diaspora as well as a general lack of communication,” said the study.

“Attitudes of not being receptive to new ideas, of rejecting any form of criticism, were experienced by the diaspora both with local politicians and academics, often justified with the explanation that diaspora people ‘don't know the situation’.”

Other constraints were listed as inadequate time to participate in research programmes and insecurity in countries of origin.

Diaspora engagement — Case studies

Ethiopia, which in 2014 had 31 universities, had the highest number of graduates from DAAD and Erasmus Mundus.

Most were keen to return home, attracted by the University Capacity Building Programme or UCBP, in which the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit was contracted from 2005 to 2012 as agent and project manager to build more universities in the country.

The study said academics trained abroad were attracted by Ethiopia’s massive investment in education and the creation of new universities.

A government plan aims to increase the number of PhD holders massively over the next five to 10 years, stimulating hope for growing opportunities and success stories among returnees.

One complaint, however, was that there was not a rigorously coordinated policy. Most decisions were taken ad hoc and locally by the respective authorities — with support from the central government in individual cases.


In Cameroon, the Ministry of Higher Education had a theoretical awareness of the importance and high profile skills of African alumni of European study programmes, but there are apparently marginal opportunities and concrete activities facilitating the input of diaspora academics into the higher education sector.

“We learned that the Cameroonian Ministry of External Relations is supposed to deal with general diaspora issues and that they should have more appropriate knowledge. Exchange on the matter did not seem to happen in any systematic way,” the study said.

Cameroon has an active higher education policy towards Europe and has eight state-run institutions — the universities of Buea, Bamenda, Douala, Yaoundé I & II, Dschang, Maroua and Ngaoundere. While the universities of Buea and Bamenda are English speaking, the rest are bilingual in principle.

The study revealed that academic positions were open on a competitive basis, with no preference given to Cameroonians currently staying abroad. Diaspora academics were expected to express a special willingness to contribute to national development and to return home without being given some form of incentive.

There were also constraints for diaspora academics in getting appointed as professor in a Cameroonian university.

Academics sign a document stating that they will come back to Cameroon after studies abroad and will work for 10 years in Cameroon, but it was felt that nobody followed it up — nothing happened to those who did not come back.

Yet another problem was that when diaspora people expressed critical opinions, the government became reluctant to take them into account. Expressing ideas different from those of the government could become problematic, with academics questioned about whether they were seriously willing to develop and improve the sector.

People in the diaspora were also seen as outsiders and not as actors.

“We learned from our interview partners that even among the academics there is a great deal of social mistrust against diaspora colleagues and ‘their beautiful life abroad’, while many academics in Cameroon were waiting for promotion,” says the study.

Due to myriad such problems, African research universities were unable to compete with foreign institutions — especially on research competitiveness to recruit staff from abroad, be it African diaspora people or scholars of non-African descent, the study noted.

The Dakar-based pan-African institute for social sciences CODESRIA is offering solutions to make African academics contribute to Africa more with its transnational seminars for young scholars and PhD candidates.

CODESRIA regularly brings together local scholars, diaspora academics and foreign researchers. But the activities depend on the availability of resources and the development of permanent partnerships with foreign institutions.

France has ensured that grant programmes are created explicitly to train academics and to result in a direct contribution to higher education development goals. The programmes include facilitation of research and life at doctoral schools.


The study noted that some approaches by African governments towards African graduates and diaspora of European study programmes were key to utilising their skills.

Most respondents said higher education systems must be made more attractive by providing competitive salaries, research facilities and access to scientific literature, and by removing heavy bureaucracies and dysfunctional management.

Recognition of the need for a future generation of professors by some countries may have seen an emphasis on PhD training, which could be a factor enabling more of an impact on Africa’s higher education systems by academics trained abroad.

The study recommends setting up national policies focusing on academic diasporas in African countries, and establishing independently run databases on African talent. Also, African academic diasporas can self-organise into groups that champion their interests.

Finally, a welcoming culture for alumni from European programmes should be developed — currently, many alumni from European courses wanting to become more involved in African higher education do not have their qualifications recognised or are denied work because of their critical views.