Skip navigation
In my opinion

Recruiting African students to Canada isn’t good for Africa

Canada should bolster Africa’s universities, not drain their best students.


This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

At a recent event at Rideau Hall, hosted by Governor General David Johnston, the Mastercard Foundation announced that it was providing $75 million dollars to three Canadian universities – the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia and McGill University – to educate 270 African students over the next 10 years. It appears to be win-win: the universities get a much needed infusion of cash and the students get an education in some of the world’s best universities.

But it isn’t a win for Africa. Most the students won’t go home. Worse yet, by having them come to Canada, it drains some of the best and brightest away from the universities in their home countries, thereby reducing those institutions’ quality. The students are not around to discuss the last lecture with their fellow students. Such a brain drain makes the academics in the students’ countries feel second rate. They are being told indirectly that their universities are not good enough to educate these students. And the home countries, seeing that Canada is willing to educate their best students, will commit fewer funds to higher education. Since others are picking up the tab, why should they invest in their universities?

There isn’t much support in Canada for improving universities in the developing world. Much of Canadian aid goes for primary education and basic health, but you cannot improve these without having the teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, and administrators to staff and run them. These professionals should be educated at institutions of higher education in their own countries. It won’t work to send them abroad to study, not only because most won’t go back, but the education they would receive is often not appropriate for poor countries with very different cultures from Canada’s.

Canada used to be involved in helping developing countries improve their universities. Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, one of the key figures in modernizing the social sciences in Quebec, was the founder and president of the National University of Rwanda. In the 1960s, many Canadians on a Canadian International Development Agency-funded project assisted Makerere University in Uganda to improve the quality of education that it offered. And there were others.

But more recently, Canada is mostly missing in action. CIDA (now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) does not have higher education as a priority. The International Development Research Centre supports research projects in the developing world, but it is not in the business of helping improve university departments in the developing world that educate the researchers involved in these projects. Many dedicated Canadian academics donate their time and money to assist universities in developing countries, but without the support of their own universities. And, very few Canadian foundations give grants to support higher education in the developing world.

There are many excuses for the lack of interest. Partly it is that there is no quick fix in improving higher education. It takes years of steady work for there to be a pay-off; after all, it has taken Canada more than 150 years to have world class universities. And it is difficult to have measurable outcomes for programs that aid universities – it is not like vaccinating children for small pox. Aid agencies and foundations do not take the long view and want short term measurable results so that they can show the taxpayers and donors the immediate effects of their tax dollars and donations.

It might make Canadians feel good to know that the Mastercard Foundation and some of their universities are helping the developing world, but the feelings would be misplaced. Although beneficial to Canada, what the Foundation has done is detrimental to poor countries in Africa. There is a better way to assist them. At Academics without Borders Canada, we think that it is better to help them improve their universities to educate their own experts and professionals that they so desperately need for their development.

Steven Davis is executive director of Academics without Borders Canada.


Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Brock Dykeman / September 4, 2013 at 12:52

    I agree with the general sentiment of this article, though I do believe we should continue recruiting students in Africa. At the same time we should be providing more support to African universities. African students from families with money (and those able to get generous scholarships) will leave to study and generally will emigrate. We cannot stop this and Canada might as well benefit from these skills. Many of these students who immigrate to Canada send remittances home once they are working and contribute to aid and development from their Canadian homes. However, in return fo r the benefits Canada receives for the training provided in their home countires we should be providing support to universities in Africa as some kind of compensation. The Mastercard Foundation and the Canadian government should be providing aid to African universities directly in hopes that some of these graduates will stay and contribute their skills in their home countries. one of the critical areas is in medical education where we are attracting a large number of South African trained doctors. Canada should be funding one place at a South African medical school for every South African doctor working in Canada.

  2. Stacie Travers / September 5, 2013 at 15:56

    Although not the primary funding priority, IDRC’s International Fellowships Program does support higher education in the developing world, especially within Africa. The program primarily “funds awards programs managed by developing country institutions that support the research training of graduate and post-graduate students and researchers within local institutions. These grants cover the costs for doctoral field research, full study master’s and PhDs, post-doctoral research, internships and visiting fellowships”. I agree with the author that these sorts of initiatives should increase and become a funding priority. However, opportunities for Africans to study abroad are needed as well. Efforts to build partnerships between universities, recruit students with strong ties to their communities and build capacity within African instutions can work to curb the brain drain without limiting the educational opportunities available.

  3. hanaa walzer / September 6, 2013 at 05:52

    What would happen if the Universities that supported these students allocated, conditionally, a part of their support to funding research or courses these same students plan to do in their home countries upon graduation? There are graduates who do return to their African homes and are met with resistance from the existing faculty because their higher standard threatens their own tenure. Even the most patriotic, brightest of graduates finds himself in a position to either lower its standards and stay out of academia, or emigrate and continue research that contributes only marginally, if at all, to his home country.

  4. Danny / February 5, 2017 at 21:17

    I totally disagree with everything you said.

Click to fill out a quick survey