Improve education quality urgently to stem brain drain

The quality of education in African universities must be urgently improved in order to stem the brain drain and reduce risks stemming from the internationalisation of higher education, delegates at the 14th General Assembly of CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – were told.

The call came from Dr Ramola Ramtohul, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, at the assembly held in the Senegalese capital Dakar from 8-12 June under the theme “Creating African Futures in an Era of Global Transformations: Challenges and prospects”.

Ramtohul pointed out that Africa as a region has one of the world’s most internationalised higher education systems.

“Whereas the internationalisation of higher education in Africa is widening access to tertiary education and is often seen as a tool towards political stability, democracy, peace and development, it also carries risks of brain drain, which has increased mobility of professional and skilled workers leaving African universities,” said Ramtohul.

The last two decades have witnessed a rapid rise in enrolments in higher education in most countries in Africa – but there has also been continued loss of intellectual capital across the continent.

According to Ramtohul, the problem has been exacerbated by reductions in public financial resources allocated to universities and other tertiary institutions across the continent.

“Globalisation and internationalisation have magnified the brain drain from Africa, with a negative impact on quality as African universities have to do more with fewer resources at the level of infrastructure, staff, teaching and research facilities.”

The case of Mauritius

Using Mauritius as an example, Ramtohul maintained that internationalisation in most African countries was increasing the cost of education. The sector in Mauritius had also become “riddled with corruption” as politicians bypassed accreditation guidelines and quality for financial gain.

“But above all, internationalisation of tertiary education in Africa is highly imbued with a Western bias which does not encourage the development of local knowledge and portrays an image that Western academic degrees carry higher value than those awarded by African universities,” said Ramtohul, a former lecturer at the University of Mauritius.

In a paper, “Globalisation, Internationalisation and Higher Education in Mauritius: The compromise of quality”, Ramtohul argued that although internationalisation is supposed to be a two-way traffic, this has not been the case.

The crux of the matter is that the recruitment of foreign students and staff has not been vibrant in African universities largely because of the perceived low quality of academic programmes, and poor institutional infrastructure and facilities.

The process has also been affected by poor marketing of courses, overcrowding and weak institutional support. Graduate training, recruitment and the retention of qualified academic staff has not kept pace with increased enrolment.

These problems have made it difficult for African countries to compete in the global knowledge economy.

“In addition, African universities have failed to respond adequately to curricula requirements for international students as most academic programmes have been mainly tailored for national higher education requirements,” the paper noted.

Africa has experienced an expansion in numbers and types of higher education. Most new providers are private or foreign universities that offer higher education through different modes, including distance learning.

According to the paper, in Mauritius and many other Sub-Saharan African countries, most foreign tertiary institutions are local branches of overseas institutions that offer certificate to degree courses, often in partnerships with local institutions.

In 2012 there were 53 foreign higher education providers in Mauritius, and with the exception of India and South Africa, they were from Britain, France and Australia.

Given the high value of the currencies of these first world countries against the Mauritian rupee, the situation represented a drain of financial resources, taking into account that there exists a similar quality of education on the African continent at a lower cost.

Internationalisation pros and cons

Professor Ibrahim Oanda Ogachi of Kenyatta University, Kenya, told the assembly that while internationalisation in Africa had some benefits, the process had stunted the ability of African universities to take off and effectively tackle the developmental needs of African society.

“To a large extent, foreign institutions in Africa have assaulted the working of previously existing public institutions and universities in carrying out their mandates,” said Ogachi, who is currently working as a senior research fellow at CODESRIA’s headquarters in Dakar.

According to Ogachi, African public universities suffer negative consequences as a result of unequal partnerships that form part of higher education internationalisation.

The problem cannot easily be wished away, since higher education has been internationalised since colonial times. Universities on the continent are largely a product of colonialism, a high number of academics hold foreign degrees, and a significant amount of knowledge and concepts have been imported.

However, in the current global economy and networked society, internationalisation of the higher education sector and institutions has become a necessity in Africa, said Ogachi.

At the continental level, the Association of African Universities is providing a forum for consultation, exchange of information and cooperation among institutions in Africa.

Regional research networks and organisations have been supporting joint research, staff exchange and capacity building, while regional university organisations and agreements foster intra-regional academic exchanges and partnership and promote internationalisation.

They include the Inter-University Council for East Africa, the Southern African Regional Universities Association and the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Education and Training.

It remains to be seen whether such initiatives contribute significantly towards the benefits of higher education internationalisation.

According to Ramtohul, poor planning and inadequate financial support anchored on dependence on external forces have weakened not just the internationalisation process but also existing higher education systems.

The current state of affairs in Africa will continue to affect the recruitment of foreign students and staff, which is an important component of internationalisation. Most African countries, said Ramtohul, will likely have to wait a long time before becoming fully-fledged members of the intelligent community in the global village.