International-development experts have expressed much concern about the brain drain of African scholars to universities in North America and Europe. Largely neglected in this discussion is the movement of academics taking place within Africa itself. This exodus occurs in two forms: scholars obtaining top-level jobs outside of academe in their home countries, and scholars migrating to better paying university jobs in more developed African countries.
In almost every case, the universities losing talent are also losing the time and resources they spent to cultivate their faculties. In one way or another, the universities often have mobilized considerable funds for their professors to receive four or five years of graduate education in the developed world. They have also in many cases provided research grants and money to travel to conferences.
As a director of international programs at the University of Botswana for four years, I witnessed this indigenous African brain drain up close. Every year it seemed somebody from the law department was recruited to be a judge. I watched as nongovernmental organizations poached at least three of the best female academics for jobs within Botswana. For-profit universities, almost all foreign owned, regularly recruit local Ph.D.’s from the university to give them a local face. Foreign-owned businesses in Botswana are always on the lookout for faculty trained in business, science, and engineering. The government itself has not held back. It has cherry picked at least two of the university’s best administrators for top roles in education. Finally, a number of academics find that their services as consultants are so in demand that they can easily make a much better income as self-employed contractors than working at the university.
Further depleting academic staff at the university is a brain drain to South Africa. Every year at least one faculty member leaves for a very sizable pay raise to work at a university to the south. There is, however, one difference with the internal brain drain and the one to South Africa: Most of the university’s former faculty come back after a year or two. They find the social environment in South Africa much more conflicted and competitive. Also, they feel they are treated as foreigners rather than fellow Africans. And some are surprised that taxes are often higher than they expected. On the other hand, those who leave the university for jobs within Botswana almost never return to academe in any capacity.
Most discouraging is that those leaving are often among the best and brightest. They are creative, ambitious, often charismatic, and almost always top leaders. The result is that the full professor ranks at the university have very few locals and a sizable proportion of expatriates, particularly from other parts of Africa. Indeed, Botswana poaches extensively for senior talent from other African countries, many of whom are quite good as instructors and scholars. These African expatriates often remain in Botswana until retirement because the salaries are much better than what they could earn at home, even in the private sector. However, they usually do not identify with Botswana personally or professionally. Many provide little service to the institution in terms of committees, are not serious about mentoring junior colleagues from Botswana, and do not contribute to the local intellectual environment. So while the university may provoke a brain drain from its sister countries in Africa, it cannot replace the best and the brightest local scholars who have the energy and vision to propel both the institution and the nation forward. Moreover, the university often ends up paying more for these senior expatriates than it would have for the talented locals.
Indeed, salaries and how they are set are significant issues. Part of the problem is that the university has no organizational process for matching outside offers. Promotion and salary evaluation has been so bureaucratized that the university’s leaders are unable to even come close to keeping up with employee expectations let alone make counter offers to academics being recruited. Finally, those in leadership are often slow to provide opportunities for energetic young instructors.
Botswana faculty members who have left the university usually hold a deep bitterness toward the institution for not recognizing their talents. Many cut off social contact with their former colleagues. Totally absent is a circulation of leadership between the university and broader community, as there is in developed countries. Those remaining in the university see themselves as left behind, or if they are younger, waiting to seize their opportunity on the outside.
All of this leads to a potentially demoralizing conclusion. If the academic brain drain from Africa to the developed world were to stop, which is starting to happen in countries like Ghana, Kenya, and Angola, it does not follow that African universities would benefit. Top talent may turn around and take government positions or jobs with businesses. What is required is a university leadership that reaches out inclusively toward its best researchers and instructors and gives them recognition and income commensurate with their abilities.