Leader: Job curbs won't work but aid will

September 2, 2005

When academics in Britain and elsewhere discuss the brain drain, they are normally worrying about the loss of high-flyers to the US. But lecturers'

unions were right to remind us this week that the growth of UK higher education could damage universities in developing countries. The unions' report focuses on Africa, but it could also have cited parts of Eastern Europe and other regions where academic recruiters are active.

Unesco has expressed similar concerns about the Balkan states, for example.

There is no labour market that is more international than higher education and no likelihood that protectionism would turn back the tide.

That said, however, there are both moral and pragmatic reasons to heed the unions' warnings. It is in no one's interests - even in universities such as those in the UK that are coming to rely on overseas talent - for higher education in Africa and other affected regions to be permanently deprived of the people who could invigorate the education system and the economy.

Many of the leading lights in developing countries will always want to further their careers overseas (and it would be incongruous for a union to deny them). The challenge for their home universities is to attract at least some of them back in later life - which is a realistic goal for the poorest nations only with help from the wealthy.

Some recommendations in this week's report would make a contribution. The development of international protocols for recruitment, such as those operating in the National Health Service, for example, would offer some protection. Academic exchanges are also valuable, although previous attempts at partnership schemes have had limited success. Bureaucratic solutions, such as a levy on overseas student fees, would almost certainly be resisted by UK universities.

Probably the best hope of real progress lies in the "renaissance" proposals for higher, as well as basic, education from Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. Although the G8 predictably sidestepped the recommendation to pump $500 million (£280 million) a year for a decade into African universities, the basis of a plan remains. The World Bank and other aid agencies have acknowledged the value of higher education to developing countries. There will be understandable anxieties about pouring aid on such a scale into unstable areas, but the universities are often the best-regulated institutions in those countries. The unions' efforts would be best directed at reviving pressure for some version of the commission's plans. Anything less than a full-blooded, multinational approach will be tinkering with the problem.

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