Degrees of Uncertainty: Students and the Brain Drain in South Africa.

Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 35

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduceand reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


Executive Summary

The brain drain has recently emerged as a major policy issue in Southern Africa. Although precise data on the extent of the
skills exodus is lacking, all the countries of the region have expressed concern about the impact of an accelerating brain
drain on economic growth and development and on the quality of service delivery in the public sector. The impact of the brain drain is being exacerbated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic which is debilitating and “ killing off” large numbers of people in their most productive years. Rather than adopting “brain gain” strategies (importing skills to replace those departing) most SADC countries have preferred a “brain train” strategy. Their rationale is that training of sufficient numbers of citizens in new skills is the only way to ensure that the skills base is not depleted in the long run. In theory, this makes a great deal of sense. Home grown skilled people are more likely to be “loyal” and to remain when others might leave. But is this really so? The whole argument begins to
look rather suspect if it can be shown that governments ar e, in fact, providing students not with skills to invest at home but passports to leave. In a globalizing world of increased skills mobility, the opportunities for using skills as a ticket to a better life elsewhere are growing. What are the implications if the next generation of skilled people are just as likely to leave as their predecessors? If new graduates are simply preparing to leave, governments will have to fundamentally rethink their strategies
on skills retention.

SAMP has conducted extensive research on the magnitude and impact of the brain drain from South Africa and several other SADC countries. One prominent ANC Minister reviewed the SAMP evidence for an accelerating brain drain and hypothesized to us that this was a temporary problem. He ar gued that today’s students were far more loyal to their country of birth and that as they came onto the labour market, they would be much less anxious to leave than their parents’ generation. SAMP agreed to test this assertion with a major, representative study of the attitudes of final-year students in six SADC countries. A large sample of almost 10 000 final-year students was interviewed in training institutions across the region (universities, technikons, teach
training colleges, nursing training colleges and so on). The findings of this survey are presented here. The results should be a cause of great concern to governments and policy-makers.

In terms of general findings for the student body as a whole, the SAMP Potential Skills Base Survey (PSBS), administered in 2003, found the following:
• All students showed very high levels of patriotism and pride in their identity as citizens of their own country. Over 80% said
they were proud to be from their country and to be citizens. They were just as enthusiastic about passing these values on to
their children.
• Equally striking was the high proportion of students who felt committed to the future development of their country. As many
as 86% of students said their desire was to “help build” their countr y. A massive 92% said they felt a responsibility to con -
tribute their talents and skills to the growth of their country.
• Offsetting this strong sense of national identity and commitment were real concerns about personal economic circumstances
and the performance of national economies now and in the future. Only 2% of students were very satisfied with their personal
economic circumstances and only a third thought these circumstances would be greatly improved five years hence.
Students are very negative about current economic conditions in their country and only 10% felt that the state of their national
economy would be much better five years hence.
• Less than 25% of all students felt that the cost of living, job availability, prospects for economic advancement, and level of
taxation would get better or much better in the future. More students look forward to increased incomes and job security
although here, too, the pessimists outweigh the optimists. On the health front, the vast majority felt the HIV/AIDS epidemic
would get worse and only 35% thought that the availability of medical services would improve. Only 23% felt that their personal
and family safety would improve in the future. Students in almost every countr y felt that government was not doing
enough to create employment opportunities for new graduates

Students are thus extremely favourably disposed towards making a personal contribution to their country’s development and simultaneously extremely disillusioned about current and future personal and national economic prospects. Such is the degree of pessimism in the region’s training institutions, that the survey’s findings about potential emigration
came as no real surprise:
• As many as 79% of students have thought about moving to another country. Only 17% had not considered it at all. Just
over half (53%) felt it likely they would be gone five years after graduation. As many as 35% said there was a likelihood of it
happening within six months of graduation.
• The proportion of final-year students who had actually taken active steps to leave was predictably much smaller. Nineteen per
cent have applied or were in the process of applying for work permits abroad. Eleven per cent were applying for permanent
residence elsewhere and 11% for citizenship.
• If students do leave are they mor e likely to leave the region or relocate to another country within SADC? The most likely destination is North America (31%) followed by Southern Africa (29%) and Eur ope (29%). Southern Africa was the first choice
of students from Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Europe was the first choice of South Africans. In other words,
South African and Botswana students tend to look more outside the region while those from the other countries see a within region destination as most desirable. Ironically, the two countries seen as most desirable are South Africa and Botswana.
• Salaries, cost of living, ability to find the job wanted and prospects for professional advancement were considered better
or much better in the most likely destination. Other factors perceived to be better by a majority of students included better educational opportunities for children, medical services, upkeep of public amenities, availability of quality affordable products, and customer service.
• Do SADC students think they will leave for good? Around 25% said it was likely they would move for less than two years and
23% for more than two years. If nearly half of all new graduates are likely to leave their home country (and a quarter for longer
than two years), this represents a significant long-term loss of new skills.
• The impact of the brain drain can be mitigated somewhat if emigrants retain str ong social and economic ties with home.
Less than 10% said they would give up their home, take all of their possessions or all of their assets out of the country.
Similarly, very few were willing to give up their citizenship. Only 4% of students said they would never return once they had
left. Over 60% said they would return at least once a year. Only 4% said they would not remit funds back home.

The emigration potential of SADC students on graduation is high and economic factors are paramount when students consider what to do in the future. The primary losers from the brain drain of new skills are likely to be Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho. The primary beneficiaries are likely to be North America and Europe and, within the region, South Africa and Botswana. South Africa, at the same time, is the most likely to lose home-trained skills. South Africa is likely to be both a victim
and a beneficiary of the brain drain.

Although there is a remarkable degree of unanimity from country to country, some important differences did emerge. On just about every measure of dissatisfaction, pessimism and desire to leave, Zimbabwean students scored significantly higher than students in other SADC states. They were extremely negative about their personal and national economic fortunes now and in the future. They showed the greatest desire to leave and the greatest likelihood of doing so. Yet, Zimbabwean students
too expressed a willingness to put their skills to work in their own countr y. They just did not appear to see how this could happen. In terms of the other countries, Namibians were consistently most optimistic and Swazis most pessimistic.

Another difference of note concerns who pays for higher education. Obviously all governments invest heavily in higher education and training but the ways in which students support themselves varies considerably. Across the region, nearly half of all students were on government bursaries with the next highest category of support being personal/family funds (26% of students) and then bank loans (12%). The degree of government support varied from countr y to country with a high of 88% in Botswana to a low of 14% in South Africa. South African students are disproportionately funded by family and personal funds (44%) compared
with a low of only 5% in Botswana. Only in Zimbabwe were the majority of students (36%) supported by banks or study loans.

Students were not averse, on the whole, to some form of cash or inservice payback for government grants and loans. Nor, significantly, was there great opposition to measures often mooted by governments to discourage new graduates from leaving e.g. national service or bonding. These kinds of measures are generally not going to cause people to leave in pr otest. The fact remains, though, that governments face an uphill struggle if they are going to keep students at home, capitalize on their desire to serve, and r ecoup their investment in skills development. Failing that, governments should be looking at taking advantage of the
new global market in skills and importing skills trained elsewhere. In tr uth, they should probably be doing that already.