Centres of excellence can stop Africa’s brain drain

Centres of excellence aim to stop Africa's brain drain with quality science training Copyright: Flickr/ US Army Africa

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Science students will choose to study and work in Africa if they have access to high-quality training, says education adviser Sophie Rivière.

African economies are growing quickly and employers across the continent are seeking qualified personnel to maintain and pursue their development.

But many Africans are still turning to northern or western countries for their education and their careers, making it difficult for African employers to hire qualified local staff. In fact, more than half of African students who study in Europe take up employment there, instead of returning home.

Stopping the brain drain has become a necessity for Africa, so governments, companies and donors are trying to help young Africans to stay.

Centres of excellence offer internationally recognized curricula and state-of-the-art research facilities, providing a more affordable alternative in a better suited environment where teaching is in tune with the local context.

These centres are investing heavily in the quality of education they are providing, gradually reducing the gap between institutions in the North and those in the South. They are also increasing their capacity to admit more students.

Reversing the brain drain

The International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, is one of these centres of excellence. It specialises in water, energy, the environment, civil engineering and mining — fields of expertise tailored to the needs of local and regional economies.

The centre’s student population has grown significantly over the past five years, from 240 in 2005 to 1,850 in 2010. And its graduates are in high demand on the labour market — more than 90% of alumni have found employment within six months of graduation.

Importantly, 95% of 2iE students end up working in Africa, mostly in the private sector, strengthening local economies and contributing to long-term growth.

This shows that with sufficient funding and technical assistance, centres of excellence can help to reverse the brain drain. But they face questions over how to grow and respond to society’s needs.

In March this year, an international conference addressed the governance and financing of centres of excellence with the specific objective of increasing their sustainability and reinforcing their impact.

The conference was organized by 2iE with the World Bank, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the African Capacity Building Foundation, the French Development Agency (AFD) and the African Development Bank.

Case studies from countries all over the world — including Mexico, Lebanon, Senegal and Tunisia — were presented to participants from higher-education institutions, research centres, donor agencies, decision-making bodies and the private sector.

Participating centres of excellence included Senegal’s Ecole Supérieure Multinationale des Télécommunications (ESMT), Tunisia’s Ecole Supérieure Privée d’Ingénierie et de Technologies (ESPRIT), and Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology.

The aim was to draw out key common characteristics of these centres, and establish an action plan to build their capacity.

A flexible approach

The discussions in Ouagadougou led to the adoption of criteria to define excellence in higher education and research: demand-driven training, striving for international standards and recognition, a strategic vision and merit-based access for students.

Financial and statutory autonomy, flexibility in management and strategic planning were among the concrete recommendations that emerged from the discussions to ensure good governance.

Centres of excellence should have the flexibility to seize opportunities and respond to emerging needs by developing new training programmes, adapting salary and recruitment policies, and reshaping strategies according to political, economic and social changes.

Public–private partnerships were also viewed as a major asset. They can help to ensure that academics and scientists are involved in a centre’s decision-making, business development and innovation.

And there are tangible benefits to involving the private sector. For example, the presence of mining companies in Burkina Faso has recently boosted the demand for environmental scientists specialising in mining. In response, 2iE developed relevant courses to meet these emerging needs, implementing the Specialized Master’s Degree in Sustainable Management of Mines.

Scholarships and loans

Participants at the conference also discussed how to improve financial sustainability. A follow-up meeting on how the private sector — notably the banking sector — can contribute to this aspect will be organised before the end of the year.

Risk sharing and guarantee schemes to finance student loans, boarding facilities and infrastructure investments are possible innovative mechanisms that should be considered.

At 2iE, new financing mechanisms for prospective students have already been set up. In addition to the scholarship programmes currently offered to 40% of the student population, the centre has established a partnership with the Bank of Africa and the AFD enabling master’s students to obtain a loan based on their future employability.

Set up in 2009, this programme is accessible to students from the 12 countries where the Bank of Africa is located, and negotiations to expand it are underway.

Centres of excellence are raising academic standards in Africa on a large scale, enabling students to remain in Africa and convincing scholars worldwide to turn to Africa to teach or to conduct research.

By adopting the conclusions of the conference, centres and partners in the South have set out a course of action that they must now follow to continue promoting the creation and dissemination of knowledge — one of the most powerful tools in combating poverty.

Sophie Rivière is advisor to the managing director of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.