What African universities can do to attract academics back from the diaspora

Diaspora academics get used to working in resource rich environments with everything they need. How can Africa compete? From www.shutterstock.com

I moved from Nigeria to the US in the 1970s during the “golden age” of immigration that followed the introduction of America’s Immigration Act in 1965.

At this time, it was relatively easy for an ordinary Nigerian with a burning desire to travel abroad to obtain an international visa. I did not believe my prospects of going to university in Nigeria were good. Between 1962 and 1980, there were only 13 universities in Nigeria. Access to these was quite limited.

One of the most attractive things about the diaspora was how media studies blended theory with practice. The style of teaching at Nigerian universities then was highly theoretical. I wanted both the conceptual knowledge and practical skills that could later be applied to my working life as a journalist.

My field, communication, was not widely available at Nigerian universities. The US, on the other hand, had many reputable and attractive degree programmes in this field.

There were other reasons for my move. In the 1970s, a person educated abroad enjoyed high status and prestige upon their return. They were likely to land a senior administrative position – and with this, perks like a nice house, car and stewards to wait on them. I came from a humble background and saw studying abroad as a ticket to success in life.

I was also following a trend. Many of my friends and family had studied abroad. But like many before and after me, my aspiration was to come to the US, obtain my education and return to serve Nigeria.

When I got back to Nigeria in the early 1980s, though, I experienced a profound culture shock. I had become a foreigner in my own country – so I returned to the US.

Reaching out to diaspora talent

There are between 20,000 and 25,000 African-born academics working at America’s colleges and universities. Many of whom I have met and worked with – and I myself – want to contribute to our home continent. We have a great deal to offer in terms of skills and knowledge. We can train young academics. We can help to build our native countries. There are several ways that African universities can get us involved.

For starters, each must take stock of its core strengths and weaknesses. This will reveal not only the administrative and instructional structures that need support, but also the nature of the support that’s needed.

Next, they must consult available databases to identify universities and individuals in the diaspora that have the capacity to meet their needs. Then they can directly contact these people, departments or institutions. Some universities believe they are already doing this through existing global exchange programmes – but these don’t benefit all African institutions and aren’t available to all diaspora academics.

Building more than just relationships

There is more to drawing diaspora academics back to their home countries than merely striking up individual relationships. Although the situation varies from country to country, it is fair to say that African universities, like the societies they occupy, generally have poor infrastructure.

More often than not, buildings, classrooms, grounds, instructional technology, teaching resources like books, journals and laboratories are decades out of date. This makes it difficult for diaspora academics to collaborate with colleagues at African universities on research and teaching.

I am reminded of the difficulties I had teaching a television production course to students at a sub-Saharan Africa university that had no cameras, nor a studio. In another instance, a colleague from an African university couldn’t send me data that he’d collected – because there weren’t enough computers on campus.

For African diaspora academics who are accustomed to working in resource-rich environments, these types of difficulties can become a disincentive for exploring ties with African universities.

Better institutional management

The poor state of infrastructure at African universities is directly related to inadequate funding, as shown in a Nigerian study. Often, funds promised to African universities by governments never arrive, arrive late or arrive in much smaller amounts than expected. This makes it difficult for African universities to obtain the resources to operate effectively and efficiently.

This is frequently compounded by internal administrative factors like internal politics, inadequate compensation and low morale, competing values and a lack of commitment by staff.

African diaspora academics want to contribute their talents to benefit universities in Africa, and some are already doing so. The benefits of these interactions can be maximised if administrators of African universities take appropriate steps to enable an environment where the limitations of distance, space and time are easily transcended.