The academic world is not as distant from everyday reality as some might think. In the late 1970s, the global commodities crisis reduced export revenue in African countries and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank intervened to provide loans. The loan conditions included cutting public spending on education.
This resulted in a spike in migration, including thousands of African academics moving to North America, Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia. They left for better paid jobs and more research funding in the host countries. The loss of well-trained and experienced academics created huge gaps in the higher education sector. But the sector continued to grow.
The shortage of academics adds to other challenges for universities, such as research quality, innovation, endowment and global visibility. For instance, in the international Times Higher Education ranking for 2019, the top-ranked university in Africa was the University of Cape Town in 156th place. The second, the University of the Witwatersrand, was in the group placed 201st-250th.
Curricular stagnation is another issue. Across the continent, the curriculum in virtually every field is not supplying the needs of the modern, knowledge economy.
This is where academic diasporas can help.
Transformation in curricula requires academics with up-to-date knowledge. Through their exposure to new trends in knowledge production, diaspora academics can contribute to equipping African students for the global economy.
They have huge roles to play in building bridges between universities and giving new life to higher education on the continent.
Contributing to the continent
In Ghana, for instance, the Carnegie Corporation of New York provided seed funding to establish the Pan African Doctoral Academy at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 2009. In this programme, diaspora academics train African graduate students and early career scholars.
Visiting professors work full-time for the university during their stay. They teach, supervise graduate students, examine theses and initiate collaborative research.
The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa has established the Carnegie-Wits Alumni Diaspora Programme Africa. This brings public health professionals back to the university on a regular basis to strengthen research capacity. The programme has produced research projects in HIV, TB, maternal health, paediatric surgery, physiology and anatomy.
It has also provided training in writing grant applications and scientific papers. And it has strengthened the supervision of graduate students and early career academics.
Another benefit is that students and young staff meet high-achieving international academics who once worked in South Africa. This builds confidence and inspiration.
The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa manages various initiatives that bring diaspora academics back to the continent. They build local academics' capacity to write scholarly articles and manuscripts, apply for research grants, develop curricula and supervise graduate students.
The impact of these interventions on the research profile or quality of African universities must still be assessed. But there has certainly been an increasing effort at internationalisation, scholar exchanges and establishment of doctoral schools.
The role of diaspora academics
The issue of how African academics in the diaspora can help revitalise higher education in Africa was discussed at a forum in Ethiopia in November 2019. Three background studies informed the forum, covering national policies, resource mobilisation and the experiences of other regions of the world.
Only four of the six countries studied - Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Zambia - have existing policies on academic diaspora. The others - Ghana and Nigeria - only have diaspora offices or a commission.
The studies show that many of the current diaspora engagement programmes are funded by donors. This isn't sustainable in the long run.
Comparative studies of China, India and Germany show these countries are increasingly tapping into their diaspora populations to boost research capacity and visibility. China and Germany offer incentives to their top diaspora researchers to return home. These models could be adapted for African countries.
The continental forum identified some challenges. It isn't always clear what's expected of diaspora academics. Or what they can expect in return. Sometimes tensions arise between academics, partly relating to envy and perceptions of "bossy" attitudes. Another problem is that most of the diaspora programmes are ad hoc, short term and based on individuals.
The forum agreed that African governments need to put policies and funding in place to harness diaspora academics. They should adopt institutional and long-term approaches. African philanthropists and members of the private sector should also get involved. Also, more graduate students should be trained abroad and given incentives to return home after completing their studies.
Author: Samuel Ojo Oloruntoba - Associate Professor-International Political Economy, University of South Africa