Restless Minds: South African Students and the Brain Drain.

Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 36

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


Executive Summary

Since the end of apartheid, young South Africans can look beyond the country’s borders to find employment. Yet while
greater opportunities and a wider range of choice may be good news for South Africa’s talented tertiar y students, it may also be
bad news for the country as a whole in the form of a momentous loss of skills. Skilled emigration has the potential to rob the country of considerable investment in training and education, and also deprive the economy of needed skills and upper-end consumers. The brain drain is likely to be particularly damaging to the economy when students leave relatively soon after graduating and the country fails to receive any appreciable return on direct investments in training.

This study therefore assesses the emigration potential of South Africa’s potential skills base: that is, young adults in tertiary training institutions. Altogether, final-year students at 74 South African undergraduate university faculties were surveyed, along with 92 post-graduate university faculties, 37 technikon faculties, and 3 nursing college faculties. The final sample was 4,784 students. Just over one-third were completing a certificate or diploma (36%), and another third a Bachelor’s Degree (38%). One fifth of the students were engaged in post-graduate study pursuing an Honours Degree (10%), Masters Degree (12%) or a Doctorate (less than 1%). Four percent were pursuing some other form of degree. The country’s potential skills base (as represented by this sample) is more female (54%) than male (46%); more black (48%) than white (40%); and young (median age of 22). This undoubtedly reflects dramatic changes at the country’s tertiary institutions since the end of apartheid. A 1998 SAMP survey of skilled adults in the workforce found a population that was overwhelmingly male (61%) and white (72%).

What is the potential for skills loss via emigration of final-year students? For a person to have a high emigration potential, they should have given emigration extensive thought, they should want to emigrate, and they should consider it likely that they will do so. While four in ten final-year students say they have given “a great deal” of consideration to moving to another country to live and work, as more demanding questions about commitment and probability of leaving are asked, the proportion drops. Two in ten said it was “very likely” they would leave.

Students were asked what countries they would most likely go to if they ever left South Africa. Amongst all respondents, the United Kingdom was the leading preferred destination, selected by almost three in ten respondents. This was followed by the United States (19%), Australia (15%), Europe (7%), and Canada (5%). Black, white and coloured respondents all agreed that they would most likely end up in Europe, though Indian respondents were significantly less likely to say so. Black respondents were more likely to think they would end up in North America or Southern Africa than other students. White students
were more likely than others to see Australasia as a likely destination.

A series of questions about possible movement to that country were then posed. One quarter said they wanted “to a great extent” to move there to live and work for two years or more. One in five said that it was “very likely” that they would actually do this. Short term emigration potential appears to be even higher. Forty percent said they wanted “to a great extent” to go and live and work there for less than 2 years. One-quarter said it was “very likely” they would actually go. About one in five said that it was “very likely” that they would leave the country within six months of graduation. Similar numbers said they would leave within two years and within five years. The proportions of students with a “very high” emigration potential are exactly the same as in a 1998
SAMP survey of skilled South African adults (at 2%). However, twice as many students have a “high” emigration potential (20%) with a further 25% having a moderate potential. In other words, emigration potential is higher among students than people lready pursuing their chosen profession.

At this stage of their career development, high emigration potential amongst students does not yet automatically translate into a permanent skills loss for the country. Amongst those students who definitely want to leave (those with “very high” emigration potential), the vast majority (74%) say they want to stay in their most likely destination for more than five years. However, those with “high” emigration potential seem to envision a more limited stay, at least at first: although one-third of
these students said they want to stay more than five years, 41% said they plan on a stay of 2 to 5 years. In addition, most respondents with either high or very high emigration potential plan on returning to South Africa on an annual basis. And those most likely to leave still plan on sending money home on a monthly basis.

To what extent is emigration potential simply a function of a person’s place in South Africa’s social structure? Given the country’s history, the most obvious starting point is race. Due to their loss of dominant political and economic power and perceptions of reduced employment opportunities due to affirmative action, it is widely assumed that white South Africans ar e much more likely to leave than blacks. An earlier SAMP study of all skilled professionals found that there was no significant racial difference in the proportions of skilled adults with a very high emigration potential (2% of each group), though there was a difference amongst those with a high probability (11% of whites compared to only 6% of blacks). This study found that black emigration potential
was slightly lower and white emigration potential was slightly higher amongst students. This difference was statistically significant, meaning that the difference in the sample can be generalized to the larger population of all students. However, in comparison with the many different factors reviewed in this paper, a student’s racial background provides less help in discriminating between those with high and low emigration potential.

There are few meaningful differences across a range of demographic factors. While we might expect that students from wealthier backgrounds would have more economic freedom to leave, there were only small differences according to class background of student. There is some evidence that the course of study makes certain students think they are more attractive on the international job market. Popular perception is that medical students are the most likely to leave. This study
found that those pursuing final year studies in Computer Science / Information Technology at Technikons and studying in Medical or Dental faculties at Technikons are the most likely to want to leave. Students in Nursing Training Colleges display the lowest emigration potential. Students studying in University Faculties of Medicine or Pharmacy have an average emigration potential. However, these differences across degree paths are not very large.

Former President Nelson Mandela has suggested that South Africa’s brain drain would be much lower if skilled South Africans were more patriotic and had higher levels of national identity. The vast bulk of South African tertiary students do actually exhibit a high degree of national identity and patriotism. Seventy percent of students surveyed agreed that being a citizen of South Africa is a very important part of how they see themselves. At the same time, these levels of national identity are substantially lower than those measured amongst ordinary adult South Africans, where over nine in ten have consistently registered
strong levels of national identity since 1994. Respondents with higher levels of patriotism have substantially lower emigration potential. The more a student feels they have a role to play in the future of the country, the lower their emigration potential. Students who emphasize national identity over professional identity or quality of life also have lower emigration potential.

Student perceptions of a range of features of life in South Africa were tested. Present satisfaction with personal and national economic conditions were assessed, and then whether they thought things in South Africa would be better or worse in five years time across a whole range of specific features of national life. One-half of all students were dissatisfied with their present personal economic conditions. However, 82% expected that their personal economic conditions would be better or much better in five years. About half felt that their level of income would be better. Six in ten were dissatisfied with current national economic
conditions, but most felt things would get better in five years time. Only 27% said they would get worse.

However, once the students were asked what they thought things would look like in five years time across a broad range of factors, perceptions were decidedly more pessimistic. For example, 80% said the HIV/AIDS situation would be worse and two thirds felt the cost of living would be higher. Six in ten forecast that their ability to find the job they wanted, their personal safety and their family’s safety would all be worse than they are today. On no item was there a preponderance of optimistic expectations. Perhaps most important of all, only 41% felt that it would be easy or very easy for them to find a job in their field of
study after graduation. Eight in ten felt the government had not done enough to create jobs for graduates.

Pessimistic expectations of quality of life are positively correlated to higher degrees of emigration potential, as are pessimistic expectations of safety. However, emigration potential is only weakly associated with a variety of other attitudes such as whether or not a student thinks it will be easy to find a job, personal economic pessimism, or dissatisfaction
with government efforts to create jobs.

Regardless of whether students expect conditions in South Africa to get worse, they would have no reason to leave if they consider that conditions are still better than elsewhere. They were thus asked whether conditions would be better in South Africa or in their most likely emigration destination. Overall, the results indicate that a large number of final-year students see the grass as much greener on the other side. A massive three-quarters of students are certain that they would enjoy a
higher income in their most likely destination. The majority said things would be better elsewhere in terms of their prospects for professional advancement, their ability to find a desired job and their job security.

Another factor that often shapes emigration potential is the level of information about and contact with the act of emigration. Large numbers of students reported at least some direct or indirect experience with emigration. Six in ten said that they knew at least one fellow student or colleague or close friend who had left the country permanently. One half of all students had at least one member of their extended family who had emigrated, while one quarter said that someone in their immediate family had done so. The results of the survey show that emigration potential is modestly related to the degree of knowledge of people who
have already emigrated.

What kinds of investment does the South African government stand to lose if likely emigrants do, in fact, leave? According to students’ present dispositions, the South African government would lose about 1-2% of final year students who have bursaries that do not require any payback, and approximately 5% of those that require some payback. Universities and Technikons also stand to lose about 5% of their investments in bursaries. However, these numbers would rise drastically to as high as one quarter to one third of government bursaries if the high potential students also left.

Faced with significant emigration, it is understandable that governments try and limit it through restrictive policies. Most analysts feel such policies are likely to hasten the rate of emigration even further, and the students tended to agree. Students with study bursaries were asked whether the conditions of those bursaries required them to remain in the country after they completed their studies and/or to work specifically in either the public or private sector. Twenty-two percent of all students had such a bursary. While these students do have a lower emigration potential than others, the difference is very small, suggesting
that these restrictions exercise a minimal impact on student plans and calculations.

Another type of government intervention is a requirement that students perform some form of national service in return for their education. If handled well, and if specifically required of those students who had received some form of bursary, such restrictions would not meet with massive resistance, or make students more likely to leave. Just 18% said government would not be justified in requiring those who have received government bursaries to complete some form of national service in return for their bursary. High emigration potential students were no more likely than others to think so.

However, students would be far more opposed to other types of interventions. One half of students said government would not be justified if it required students to complete some form of national service before they began tertiary education. Fifty-three percent said government would not be justified if it required citizens to work in the country for several years after graduation, with higher emigration potential students especially opposed. Six in ten said government would not be justified in
limiting the amount of money they could send out of the country, with higher emigration students more likely to be bother ed by this. And 60% said government would not be justified in making people pay taxes on income earned outside the country.

In contrast, students do feel that there are far more effective ways to limit emigration . Three quarters agreed that development and gro w th would reduce emigration and six in ten agreed that measures to encourage the re t u rn of skilled nationals living abroad would also reduce emigration. Only one-fifth said that South Africa’s efforts to discourage other gover nments from employing South African emigrants would reduce emigration. Finally, just 20% thought a legal prohibition on emigration would reduce the outflow of people.

In sum, South Africa’s final-year students are patriotic but restless. They are generally optimistic about their country’s future but less so in terms of their own prospects for professional advancement and development. They show surprisingly high interest in leaving the country and have an emigration potential that is greater than that of their older, working counterparts. While white students are marginally more interested in leaving, black students show considerable emigration potential. What is encouraging, perhaps, is that most who leave would not do so with the intention of leaving permanently. They would retain strong economic and personal links and most intend to return. In practice, however, there are numerous examples of South African students leaving“ for a while” and never coming home. Government would therefore do well to think about strategies to encourage students not to leave in the first place. Heavy investment in higher education, only to see the fruits disappear over the horizon, is both frustrating and damaging to the future economic health of the country. Measures are needed to quell the restless minds of today’s South African students.