Oct 10 2012 | Posted by SSSandy

Brain gain is a hot issue in a continent still learning to learn

Written by Professor John Hearn, Chief executive of the Worldwide Universities Network and Chairman of the Australia Africa Universities Network. Originally published on 10 October 2012 in The Australian.


I am standing near the southern tip of Africa with the great mass of Table Mountain at my back. To the north, the sub-Saharan Africa stretches into the distance.

Cape Town has just hosted a conference attended by higher education chiefs from Africa and the rest of the world. They all share the hope that internationalisation of higher education will catalyse reform and economic development across the continent.

During the past 50 years, many global initiatives have been launched in the hope of achieving African self-sufficiency. Most have been too little, too late. The challenges of leadership, infrastructure and sustainability have proved too hard.

Not far from here, Harold Macmillan spoke in 1960 about the winds of change that signalled Britain's departure from Africa. Those winds have blown relentlessly since. The goal of establishing African independence and leadership in education and research has been clear, but has generally proved elusive.

However, on the basis of the snapshot and stocktake of the International Education Association of South Africa conference, there is cause for optimism in the next 20 years. It is widely accepted that Africa's challenges have to be solved by Africans. And that partnerships and collaborations with international universities, business and governments must involve long-term commitments.

A commitment to external international engagement and internal internationalisation was demonstrated by many of the participating African universities. They are more genuine than some of their foreign counterparts, which attended the conference principally to trawl for students. Brain drain, brain gain and brain sustain are hot issues in Africa.

The Australian government is renewing its commitment to Africa with enhanced funding for research and education, exchange of experts, capacity strengthening and the support of the alumni from these programs.

The Australia Africa Universities Network (aaun.edu.au), an emerging grouping of 12 Australian institutions and their African partners, will share similar programs in research, education and training, helped by government funding.

As the partnership initiatives develop further, pivotal stakeholders from industry, non-governmental organisations and international agencies can be added to the teams, so that knowledge translates more efficiently to action and to application.

When I lived and lectured in Kenya and Uganda in the 1950s and 60s, and worked there with the World Health Organisation through the 80s, hope ran high but waned through a combination of local factors, lack of time and short-term funding.

Perhaps the winds of change will blow more positively in future, bringing benefits from partnerships to drive sustained innovation and development in Africa.