The Differential Effects of Africa’s “Brain Drain,” The Scramble for “Intellectual” Capital

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By Mikael Wossen, PhD

“Your Education today is your Economy tomorrow” Andreas Schleicher (OECD).

In Face to Face Africa or (Face2Face), April 2014 issue, there is an uplifting article entitled “African Immigrants Excel Highest in US Academies.” It caught my attention. The article speaks of the high educational attainment and academic success of Africans in America. For instance, African immigrants obtain a diploma at a rate twice higher than US-born whites, and four times more when compared to black Americans. Some 48.9% of all Africans hold a college diploma which is more than double the rate of native-born white Americans. This is quite a significant achievement, even in raw numbers. The wider social implications are more interesting.
AfricaIt was encouraging to read that Harvard University, one of the top Ivy League institutions of higher learning in the US, is accepting a “high number” of African Americans, and especially African students into its faculties. This modest intake translates into roughly 170 new Black students this year. An earlier 2007 report showed that African students constituted “nearly 40 percent of the black students” admitted to the Ivy League schools. We also read of one African student, who is accepted to all Ivy League universities. In short, we are witnessing remarkable African educational achievements outside the continent. To speak in regular terms, Africans have become among the most educated groups in the US. How is this possible, you may ask, while the quality of higher education is falling behind in Africa proper? In other words, the problem of providing “quality education” is getting worse rather than better in most of Africa. The African campuses are turning into places of conformity and mediocrity. In the imagery of the great Ethiopian poet Tsegaye Guebre-Medhin, they are more like places that have vowed to keep silent together. Consequently, many young Africans are voting with their feet, so to speak. This mass migration of the “educated,” poses a great problem for Africans. It is occurring at a time when the world economy is moving from mass commodity production to knowledge production. According to the research of University of Oxford’s Internet Institute’s “Geography of the World’s Knowledge,” which recently looked at the global distribution and concentration of academic activity and internet use, Africans are losing out in this new scramble for intellectual and digital power.
These high achieving African students in America today, are the byproducts of Africa’s “Brain Drain” as it were. Over about a thirty year period, Africa has lost about a third of its professionals to the developed countries. These immigrant families place a high standard on the value of education and knowledge for advancement in the contemporary world. These are products of a more or less free education in Africa. The public, in other words, educated them. Face2Face asserted that some 87.9% of the African-born population in the US reported having a high school degree or higher, compared with 78.8% of Asian-born immigrants and 76.8% of European-born immigrants. Immigrants from Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Botswana and Malawi tend to do exceedingly well on this score. This intellectual drainage from Africa is colossal and ongoing. Its effects on Africa are much worse, in terms of long-term consequences, than the infamous capital flight. The immigrant parents of the African high achievers in the US were the well educated “knowledge workers” that left Africa during the days of structural adjustment policies i.e., the late 1970s and thereafter. At the time, the experts had decreed that the focus of “donor” funding and reform in Africa should focus on basic education. This level was said to wield a higher rate of social return on educational investment. The proverbial floodgates were opened. United Nations data tell us that around the same time, an estimated 50.000 middle and senior management personnel and some 23.000 academics had started to leave the continent every year. This amounts to 10% of the continent’s university graduates. Some 30% of doctors from Ethiopia are part of this migratory trend today. The quality of higher education has become the mirror of economic performance in today’s knowledge economy. A significant question also arises. Namely, who is really building whose capacity, when it comes to higher education and knowledge production? Are not these academics and skilled personnel flooding overseas, the “raw materials” of the knowledge economy.

This African academic success in the US ought to put to rest the whole “racialized” and “inheritability” conceptualizations of the relationships between a certain amount of intelligence (IQ) quotient and school attainment, so popular in US. To be sure, without the use of crude biological assumptions and racist presuppositions, direct inheritance of scholastic aptitude becomes a rather problematic proposition. Besides, all current thinkers agree that the genetic inheritance argument is biologically baseless (contrived), culturally biased and do not even take into consideration different types of intelligence. In a recent article (Time, March 24), Leon Bernstein (president of Bard College) argued that the SAT is “part hoax, part fraud” and needs to be abandoned or replaced.” It says little about the student’s real intelligence but correlates well with income. Specifically, the richer your family, the better you’ll score on the SAT (college-entrance-examination system). The so called achievement gap thus becomes a wealth gap. Yet this does not mean that nature/heredity plays no part in measured intelligence. What I’m arguing here is that we need to move away from questionable racist and biological assumptions about a person’s intelligence and move towards exploring sociological concepts like “cultural capital” and habitus (Bourdieu). These variables seem better social predictors of overall intelligence and school aptitude/achievement. The idea that a class-based cultural capital is institutionalized in schools may have been novel in the 1970s. This is no longer the case now. The idea postulates roughly that the ideas and beliefs of the ruling social strata tend to find themselves amid the visible and invisible curricula operative in schools. Also, ways of speaking (grammar, syntax) and various school aptitudes tend to be instilled earlier in life at home and are varied by social class. In theoretical terms, the noted French sociologist Bourdieu built his educational theories and the notion of “habitus” on Bernstein’s theory of “linguistic codes.”
While there have been changes in race attainment and the struggle for equality, old socio-economic patterns still recur within the wider social structures. In other words, while the race gradient has changed markedly for the better, the class gradients persist across time and space. Polarization is the norm. Thus, the likelihood of graduating from a university is closely linked to parental educational levels and socioeconomic status in virtually all countries around the world. In our epoch, race is intricately interwoven with class. This is to say that the class hierarchy is ‘color-coded.’ The social class patterns (SES) of inequality are so regular and recurrent, that they have been described as one of sociology’s “semi-iron law.” The educational attainment of African Americans is not where it should be at the moment. Their schooling is limited, and their occupational successes are also restricted. Blacks with college degrees in the US are more likely to be unemployed compared to whites. This is all primarily due historical-structural legacies unique to the US, not for lack of intelligence per se. That is to say, the ghosts of Jim Craw and functionalist thinking are still alive and well.
In today’s globalized world, links between school attainment and occupational success are tighter than ever before. This means that almost all professional positions and occupations require credentials of some sort. In such a society education becomes a central institution in which individuals compete and vie for advantages. This makes the race to the top and for the right credentials ever more intense and competitive. Decades of research have shown that affluent families are greatly advantaged in this race as well. As it stands, youth from the lowest family income (quartile) are three times more likely to drop out of school than those in the top quartile. Teenagers with university educated parents fare better in high school. Underprivileged children are more likely to experience delays in vocabulary development than their more affluent peers. In such a world, income, occupational prestige and parental education are more useful predictors of children’s school success, rather than race. Typically, in today’s hyper-competitive schooling environment, educated parents “in the know,” more actively intervene to systematically improve their offspring’s life chances. The race to boost the educational achievement, success and credentials of children becomes more imperative than ever. This is why after school instruction is a growing business world-wide. You cannot inherit intelligence. In this way alone, educational advantage may be passed on to the offspring. This is the modern process of reproducing status and advantages by actively intervening to improve the child’s academic success.
The educational advantages of African immigrants’ dwell in the fact that they are offspring’s of these educated households, who have fled the authoritarian limitations of the continent. In short, habitus is a way of being, “the product of the internalization of the structures” of the social world. It is a “structuring structure” of the social world instilled early in life. The new immigrants carry within themselves a hungry disposition towards the literate world, and strive for the acquisition of diverse cultural capital. This is why their children excel in the new environment, not because they are inherently more intelligent than their fellow Americans of whatever race. Genetic advantages or disadvantages may exist anywhere in this world, but they are realized in the existing context of nurture and are socially conditioned. It is like the Koreans who came to the West and excelled academically, but their compatriots are not considered so bright in Japan, where the ghost of Japanese domination raises it legacy. Thus, family background and the historical socio-economic conditions of the population in question matter for school attainment/success, and for understanding inequalities/mobility depending on time and place. Over the long term, however, children from wealthier families tend to be better prepared for school achievement in virtually all countries. There is some hope, however, for so called poorer countries. Here, where formal schooling is newer and less institutionalized, research suggests that school effects, teacher’s and resources are stronger predictors of achievement, rather than family SES.
Mikael Wossen PhD, is a sociologist of international education. This article is dedicated to SEED for seeking and honoring the best in us and amongst us every May.