V-c: overseas student recruitment ‘weakening developing world’

Wits’ Adam Habib says universities should be ‘more focused on the developmental outcome’ of internationalisation

February 12, 2020
Source: Getty

Universities’ efforts to recruit students from developing countries have “weakened” the progress of their home nations, according to a South African vice-chancellor who called for a “reimagining of international partnerships”.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, said that the internationalisation model of Western higher education over the past 40 years had focused on “offering scholarships to talented students from the developing world”, with “perverse consequences”.

“Most UK universities say they are training people so they can go back [to their home countries]. They are lying. Because what they are doing is offering a scholarship to an individual, it transforms their lives, 85 per cent of them don’t go back and basically those countries are no better off,” he told Times Higher Education during a visit to the UK.

As a result, according to Professor Habib, universities have “accelerated the brain drain as much as [they have] enabled access. And then by accelerating the brain drain [they have] weakened higher education institutions in the developing world, thereby weakening the prospects” of these countries.

Professor Habib said that Wits was as much at fault for undertaking this approach as universities in the UK and US.

“Wits is as guilty of doing that with the rest of the [African] continent as you guys are of doing it with the rest of the world. This is a global problem,” he said.

Professor Habib said that the answer was not for universities to “move away from international partnerships” but instead to “rethink” their approach to internationalisation and “reimagine international partnerships”.

“Instead of offering scholarships, direct [money] to institutions. When you direct it to institutions what you should be doing is dual degrees, split-site scholarships [where students study in their home country and abroad, and] doctoral supervision across institutions,” he said.

“But to do that I need vice-chancellors in the UK, US and other places to be more imaginative, less focused on their balance sheet and more focused on the developmental outcome that they profess to be committed to. It seems to me that’s the historical challenge here and that’s what we should be focusing on.”

Professor Habib cited the 2015 launch of the African Research Universities Alliance, which aims to expand and enhance the quality of research done in Africa by African researchers, as well as a £20 million grant from UK Research and Innovation to Wits to facilitate split-site scholarships.

Aminata Cairo, lector of inclusive education at the Hague University of Applied Sciences, said she agreed that universities had focused on internationalisation from the point of view of “how it would benefit them”. But she added the “fault is not only with the host institutions” as factors such as the availability of jobs also contribute to brain drain.

“To switch to a more moral model where the country of origin is being considered and true mutual beneficial partnerships are included as part of the equation is a daunting task,” she said. “It requires more thought-out collaboration and planning.”



Print headline: Bursaries are ‘bad for Africa’

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Reader's comments (4)

One of many Chinese policies that endear it to developing countries is educating their students for free and requiring them to return to their home countries upon graduation. Interestingly, this policy was born during the Cultural Revolution, to stem the brain drain from the poorer hinterland and was, as we now see, successful.
I was born and grew up in Mexico. I graduated from the National University (UNAM), and then went abroad to pursue a graduate degree. Or two. Most of us leave hoping to acquire skills to go back and get a job where we can employ them. Why am I still in North America and not back in Mexico? Because I would never be able to do my job there. And I am not the only one. We miss our family, our roots, but there are no jobs back home. Appointments and promotions depend on who you know, not what you do. We don't go back because there is nothing to go back to.
Foreign studies is actually a great thing. It gives people the chance to migrate to another country for a better life not offered in their country of birth-- especially if they come from a poor background and cannot afford to move out.
Although this being said, universities and other schools must accept responsibility for advising international students about their rights and privileges as foreign students. This includes explaining to them the local customs of what local people do that is regarded as acceptable behaviour. Institutes that accept international students must also protect local students against accusations from foreign students to keep foreign students in line with local customs to ensure everyone is treated fairly.


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