SA calls on the skills of expats overseas

October 19, 2001

The THES examines how countries are turning brain drain into brain gain.

South African academics go abroad for better pay, but their expertise is being used back home via a new network.

Unable to lure back highly qualified citizens who have emigrated, South African universities and the government are attempting to stem the brain drain by using the skills of South Africans abroad and by attracting replacement researchers and professionals from elsewhere.

But South Africa's scant programmes to halt the exodus are not enough in a country that has a shortage of 500,000 skilled people and has lost 250,000 of its "brightest and best" in the past decade, mostly to political instability, crime, affirmative action and global mobility. Under apartheid, emigration was driven by politics. Now crime and other problems encourage people to leave, along with the belief of many non-blacks that their opportunities are limited by affirmative action.

Brain gain can happen in two ways - repatriation or mobilising expat human resources and linking them to national development. But repatriation is a very limited option, says Roshan Kishun of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA).

"We are very concerned about attracting people back to South Africa. Our problem, as usual, is money. We simply cannot match the salaries and conditions that academics enjoy in the developed world."

Lack of high-level skills is a major constraint to development so, like some 20 other nations, this country has set up a South African Network of Skills Abroad (Sansa) and is calling on expats to make their skills available.

According to its website, the thinking behind Sansa, and similar networks, is that in today's networked world, migration need not be viewed only negatively. Skilled expats are seen as an "available human asset" if the country of origin knows how to take advantage of it.

Just how valuable South Africa's skills abroad are was indicated by research Sansa conducted while it was being created at the University of Cape Town, with the support of a French institute that was involved in similar initiatives in Latin America.

Based on data from the five universities with the largest number of alumni abroad - Cape Town, Wi****ersrand, Natal, Stellenbosch and Rhodes - it found 21,485 to be living abroad with known addresses: the actual number is much higher.

About 20 per cent of those graduates are in the UK, 17 per cent in Australia and 13 per cent in the US. The more highly qualified the graduate, the higher the chance that they are abroad. Some 28 per cent of Cape Town's doctoral graduates live abroad, which is twice the percentage for those with first degrees.

Sansa also found that many graduate expats responded "very enthusiastically" to the idea of contributing to the country's development. Since democracy in 1994, many have made major contributions to their alma maters, and many have visited local universities.

Last year, Sansa, which has the support of the government and universities, was handed over to the National Research Foundation, a scientific research funding agency.

Its website databases are now connecting local organisations and experts to thousands of expats. Though not limited to South Africans abroad, the network is directed mainly at them, says Sansa, which believes that tapping the diaspora could "significantly" help South Africa achieve its many daunting goals.

The range of contributions envisaged for expats include helping local graduates to study abroad, participating in training or research with South Africans, transferring technology, transmitting information and research results, facilitating business contacts and initiating research and commercial projects.

Sansa coordinator, Henda van der Berg, says there were some 3,000 people abroad now on the database, which is, she added, being actively used. "We are gaining on average ten new members a day." Most are from Britain, Australia and the US.

The database also has 3,000 researchers and experts available to work on projects, and this number will soon swell to encompass 6,000 academics who are on South Africa's existing research network database.

Sansa is now developing a website infrastructure that will allow members to network more easily, for instance by grouping skills into subject nodes.

It is also looking at ways of encouraging use via information exchanges, local associations in destination countries and building a central bank of projects and resources.

Clearly South Africa is pinning its brain gain hopes on the diaspora option. Neither the South African University Vice-Chancellors' Association nor IEASA knows of higher education programmes to repatriate South African researchers and scientists.

However, Kishun, who is also director of the international office at the University of Natal, said institutions are attracting students and academics from the rest of Africa, in line with the government's National Plan for Higher Education. Most of South Africa's 20,000 or so foreign students are Africans. There are also major efforts to recruit more students locally, to begin to fill the skills gap.

And there are some programmes aimed at attracting top researchers to the country, such as the University of Wi****ersrand's Friedland Fellowship. It is using a bequest to offer globally competitive postdoctoral research opportunities to top researchers worldwide.

The idea, says Barry Mendelow, a professor at Wits, is that South Africa is attractive as a research laboratory in several areas, including health. Wits offers of $25,000 (£17,300) year-long fellowships (normally they are worth less than $10,000) prompted a promising international response.

"The calibre of the applicants was so high that we decided to offer two students, one from Britain, the other from Israel, fellowships next year. The benefits from their research will be applicable to millions of people," Mendelow says, adding that it is also hoped that the presence of superb researchers will encourage young South Africans to stay here.

Details: sansa.nrf.ac.za

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