Are African universities ready for diaspora academics?

Members of the academic diaspora are dependable ambassadors for universities in Africa in the face of the unstoppable onslaughts of economic globalisation and higher education internationalisation, argues Ibrahim Oanda Ogachi, programme officer for the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

The cohort of diaspora academics is not only broad in terms of academic skills within global knowledge networks, but also has an interest in the rejuvenation of African higher education.

But a major concern for Ogachi and others is whether African universities are in a position to fully engage the academic diaspora, given low standards in African higher education – usually the result of lack of resources and poor governance.

In a study just published by the International Journal of African Higher Education, titled “Engaging the African Academic Diaspora: How ready are universities in Africa?”, Ogachi says that while in the last two decades African universities have worked to rebound from neglect, now they are caught in a web of internationalisation.

“Ideally, internationalisation in higher education is a process through which universities in Africa have to be receptive and accommodative to ideas and influences from outside as a strategy for their renewal and acceptance on the global stage,” Ogachi told University World News.

But internationalisation of higher education is also a developmental process through which institutions can stake their claim in the international intellectual market place by making valued contributions to global knowledge and innovation.

So African universities are under intense pressure to take their place on the international stage by not just improving teaching and learning but also significantly increasing their research output and innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Internationalisation in higher education has raised the academic bar to the extent that faculty members must not just publish but their work must attract high impact citation.

Positive potential role for the diaspora

With African universities facing major challenges and erosion of human capacity, partly occasioned by untoward expansion, Ogachi said the academic diaspora had the visibility and intellectual capacity to help in internationalising academia on the continent.

“Whatever the various vagaries and fortunes that compelled its members to stay abroad – either as political or economic refugees, or as ‘non-returnees’ after further studies – the African academic diaspora seems united in its resolve to bridge the intellectual and economic gaps that afflict most universities in Africa,” he wrote in the study.

Drawing heavily on comprehensive research commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ogachi has built a strong case for how the African academic diaspora could be a vital cog in efforts to revatilise higher education on the continent.

The research conducted by Dr Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, vice-chancellor of the Nairobi-based United States International University – Africa, shows that in terms of education levels African diaspora elites are highly competent in their areas of specialisations.

He estimated that there are currently between 20,000 and 25,000 African-born academics working as faculty in American universities and colleges.

“Most diaspora academics have complex transnational trajectories for having been educated and having worked in different countries in Africa, Western Europe and North America – and have extensive networks that can be tapped to globalise African universities,” Zeleza told University World News.

Zeleza was until recently a member of the diaspora himself, as vice-president of Quinnipiac University in the United States, and is the founder of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program.

He said most African born academics interviewed during the Carnegie-commissioned research had expressed strong interest in establishing robust relationships with African universities, either in their countries of origin or elsewhere on the continent.

Chronic brain drain

The rationale behind the use of the diaspora to renew African universities lies in the fact that the emigration rate of African academics and other professionals is on the rise, while growing enrolments and the expansion of universities require more, highly-trained academics.

Despite megaphone diplomacy on the need to reduce brain drain and attract diaspora academics back to African universities, past policies have not worked.

According to the International Organization for Migration, in the last quarter of a century Africa has lost one-third of its skilled personnel annually – doctors, lecturers, engineers and other professionals – to waves of migration to North America and Western Europe.

For instance, in Uganda the annual emigration rate of the tertiary-educated population stands at 37% and that of medical doctors trained in the country is 36%. But the greatest loss of academics and medical professionals in Africa is from Ethiopia – over 75% have emigrated from the continent.

Academic shortages, ‘brain waste’

Recent interest in using the academic diaspora to address increasing shortages of lecturing and research staff – especially in East African universities – is also due to the rapid expansion of universities and erosion of capacity exacerbated by an ageing professoriate and lack of investments in staff development.

According to Ogachi, the scope of this challenge is illustrated in Kenya, where undergraduate enrolment rose from 130,000 students in 2011 to over 450,000 students last year.

Also, as a result of increased liberalisation and the influence of donors in restructuring curricula at some universities in Africa, many academics are deployed in areas where they are not engaged in intellectual work related to the mission of the university.

“No doubt this growing body of academics constitutes some form of brain waste,” said Ogachi.

The diaspora cash cow

According to Ainalem Tebeje, vice-president of the Ottawa-based Association for Higher Education and Development, there is a feeling that African engagement with the diaspora has focused more on remittances than on academic and skill dimensions.

It is true that initial interest on the part of African governments to design diaspora policies did not originate from a need to tap into the academic diaspora to fill faculty shortages created by brain drain, ‘brain waste’ or to replace an ageing professoriate.

Rather, it appears to have come from a realisation that the diaspora, through remittances, has a positive economic impact.

At the first African Union-backed Global Africa Diaspora Summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2012, delegates agreed on creating a diaspora investment fund and a market place for the diaspora – a platform for facilitating innovation and entrepreneurship. The summit only vaguely urged the diaspora to participate in academic engagements.

According to Ogachi, Africa’s political class views diaspora remittances as a windfall that would have an indirect impact on the expansion of higher education in Africa, in terms of paying tuition fees for privatised degree programmes in public universities.

“Such is the case of students of Somali extraction from northern Kenya, who have been underrepresented in Kenya’s public universities but remittances from the Somali diaspora have created funding networks to have their students access higher education,” Ogachi said.

How welcome is the diaspora?

Despite various declarations by the African Union and national governments on the need for the academic diaspora to return, there seems to be no firm commitment that academics are welcome back, as the political climate in most countries limits their engagement.

In his study Ogachi argues that in most African nations, many politicians still portray citizens who opted to live and work abroad as unpatriotic.

“But the sharp rise in skilled emigration and the serious human resource constraints facing the continent have forced some in the political establishment to rethink their views,” he said.

Further, under a prevailing climate of suspicion, some diaspora academics have been blamed for having a patronising attitude and expecting to be treated much better by host universities than local academics.

But such complaints were rare during a meeting of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program held in Nairobi on 25 March. Lecturers from various universities explained how they benefited from linkages and partnerships with diaspora academics.

Need to evaluate diaspora engagement

In his study, Ogachi suggests that there is urgent need to evaluate current academic diaspora engagements with local universities and students.

Beyond building capacity through research, teaching and postgraduate supervision, he argues that it is vital for diaspora academics to be engaged at different levels of university leadership to improve governance.

“African diaspora academics have proved to be excellent drivers of institutions, and innovations should be engaged [for them] to join governance boards of local universities, or even be considered as vice-chancellors, principals, deans and chairs of departments.”

Ogachi’s proposal is a long shot, given political inference in public universities in Africa. But amid higher education internationalisation, African universities have no alternative but to embrace quality in the skills and knowledge they produce, in order to remain relevant.

The cobwebs of bureaucratic red tape, hierarchical structures, poor infrastructure, malaise in institutional governance and opaque culture that impede academic excellence, need to be blown away to enable diaspora academics to transfer knowledge back to Africa.