Developing countries should accept that they cannot reverse the brain drain, South Africa's Education Minister has told Commonwealth vice-chancellors.
Instead they should concentrate on making use of their academics in overseas universities, Naledi Pandor said in a speech to the Association of Commonwealth Universities at the University of Adelaide.
Some emigrant professionals were making a significant contribution to their home states. "To have a meaningful developmental impact, this contribution would need to be nurtured and sustained to the point that we will begin to speak of brain circulation and not about brain drain," she added.
Ms Pandor said Africa had lost a third of its professionals to developed countries. There were said to be 10,000 Nigerian academics employed in the US, for example, while Britain was saving $184,000 (£105,000) for every South African doctor recruited into the National Health Service.
There was a movement for developed countries to reimburse those whose professionals were being poached, Ms Pandor said, particularly in the health sector. But reimbursement was not the solution for academics in the diaspora. The establishment of virtual networks and visiting scholar programmes was a more practical alternative, she said.
Ms Pandor added that a second challenge to developing nations was posed by foreign institutions, some of which had recognisable international names but ran programmes "not worthy of the name higher education".
John Daniel, head of the Commonwealth of Learning, acknowledged that a minority of rogue operations existed. But he said that before long private providers would supply the majority of higher education places in the developing world as governments could not keep pace with burgeoning demand.
Professor Daniel, a former vice-chancellor of the Open University, said that 50 per cent participation rates were becoming the norm in the developed world, while countries such as Malaysia had set ambitious targets - a 160 per cent increase in enrolments in four years. Yet in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, only 5 per cent of young people continued in education beyond school.
Catering for the 4 billion people at the bottom of the "world economic pyramid" was not possible where governments persisted with free provision provided entirely by the state, Professor Daniel said.
"No developing country, nor any rich one, can achieve modern participation rates on this model.
"Either tuition fees must be introduced or the private sector must be invited to contribute - most likely both," he said.
Njabulo Ndebele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, welcomed the proliferation of private institutions. He said the demand for higher education could not be met otherwise. "The strong will survive and the weak will vanish," he said.
Professor Ndebele said African universities were benefiting from greater stability throughout most of the continent. "Universities are now more valued by governments as more Africans are seeking higher education."
The ACU council agreed the next stage in its Vision 2013 programme of reforms, which will decentralise some of its activities to Commonwealth countries. The secretariat is developing programmes to be pursued in partnership with member institutions.
Among the main initiatives will be a ten-year programme in association with G8 countries to "renew" African universities.