Do international scholarships lead to ‘brain drain’: tracing the impact of international alumni on their countries of origin

Students on laptop smiling
Robin Marsh

Robin Marsh is a socioeconomist with over 25 years of experience in international agriculture and rural development. She received her PhD from the Food Research Institute at Stanford University, USA. Robin joined UC Berkeley in 2000 as Director of the Center for Sustainable Resource Development and the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program. She lectures in the fields of Rural Development and Population, Environment, and Development. Robin joined the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues as a Senior Research Specialist in July 2014. Robin is a founding leader of The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at UC Berkeley, and principal researcher on the multi-university study, 'Career and Life Trajectories of African Alumni of International Universities'

There have been scant studies initiated by global universities to follow-up on the career and life trajectories of their international alumni. While such studies are regularly conducted for domestic graduates, and provide an important basis for recruitment and private or government support, campuses typically lack the institutional research support or mandate to conduct such systematic studies about international graduates. Current research on African graduates from the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and partner universities, indicates widespread and enduring social contributions by alumni, and counterfactual evidence of 'brain drain'. As universities, such as UC Berkeley, aspire to become ever more global in their reach and impact, there is an increased rationale for investing in retrospective tracer studies of international alumni, particularly from developing regions of the world.

In 2012, UC Berkeley received a large grant from The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program (MCFSP) to fund comprehensive scholarships for high -achieving, low -income youths from sub-Saharan Africa at undergraduate (70) and Masters levels (43). The grant (2012-2020) was a major game changer for Berkeley, as a public university it has historically lacked funds to finance eligible students from Africa, particularly at undergraduate level. The MCFSP elected to work with Berkeley (one of only six US universities receiving grants), due in part to its tradition of imparting social and civic values to students, in addition to providing a high quality education. This meshed well with the Foundation's 'theory of change', which supports investment in individuals and cohorts of scholars who are expected to lead positive transformative change in the institutions and communities of their countries of origin (COO).

Analysing the 'theory of change' and its premise that African graduates of international universities will return home as agents of change, if appropriate recruitment and selection strategies are used and a suite of on and off campus support is provided, it became clear that a historical examination of social engagement and return behaviours of past African Berkeley graduates would be useful to confirm or broaden these expectations.

Tracing African alumni

In late 2013, the MCFSP approved a supplementary two-year research grant (2014-2015) for a retrospective tracer study. In addition to UC Berkeley, participating universities include Michigan State University, McGill University, University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, and EARTH University (based in Costa Rica), all recipients of MCFSP grants, asides from Simon Fraser University.

A mixed methods approach was adopted to collect survey data on all sub-Saharan African alumni with available contact information. During the initial tracing phase each university went through a process of discovery that revealed diverse data management systems, but uniformly incomplete records of African graduates – one factor which explains why such studies have not been conducted in the past. Basic data was gathered for a total of 2,200 alumni. Nearly 1,400 graduates were sent online survey invitations, with a total response rate of just under 20% (294 completed surveys). In addition, 100 in-depth interviews were conducted, primarily in person and also via Skype/phone, with alumni residing in east, west and southern Africa, the United States, Canada, and Europe interviewed.

The research team developed a simple three-phase model to guide the exploration of factors influencing educational, career, and social engagement opportunities and choices. The model also acknowledges that personal choices have been made in the context of changing conditions on the African continent and globally (vertical bars). The final report was submitted in April 2016 and will be shared in subsequent posts. Below are a few highlights from the analysis of two of the key research questions.

Return paths

An important part of the research has been the exploration of the 'return paths' of African alumni after graduation and the factors that influence individuals' decisions to return to their countries of origin over time. This exploration stems from the extensive literature on problems of 'brain drain' for source countries – and more recent assertions of 'brain circulation' and 'return migration', as well as the growing diaspora influence, as mitigating trends.

Our survey results show that there are four post-graduation trajectories, which we call 'direct return' (45%), 'delayed return' (5%), 'global residence' (7%), and 'diaspora' (43%). The return rate overall is 50%, with another 7% maintaining residences in Africa and abroad or traveling very frequently between Africa and North America or Europe. Employing the three-phase model, we looked at correlation significance for childhood conditions, international study, and career considerations. Direct return levels have declined over time from a high of 65% in the 1970s to about 40% since 2010, although, the 'delayed return' path is likely to kick in for some of the younger graduates. Graduates from west Africa have lower return rates (33%) than graduates from east and southern Africa. Significant education factors influencing return decisions include primary field of study, degree level, and scholarship return obligation.

This chart shows the top six factors influencing return decisions at the time of graduation. As a means to assess context, survey respondents were also asked to reflect on whether these conditions were more or less favourable (or about the same) in their country of study or country of origin. The interviews illustrate the lifelong dilemmas African alumni face in coming to terms with their decisions to return and their decisions to stay – dilemmas that are positively resolved for many by building and maintaining active international relationships that serve as bridges for collaboration across continents.

A noteworthy finding is the significant contribution of alumni who live the majority of their adult lives in the diaspora and elect to subsequently return to Africa. Among them, we interviewed founders of organisations, chairs of academic departments, directors of think tanks, and advisors of governments and private industry. These 'delayed return' alumni have the experience and understanding to develop policies that acknowledge and attract talent from the global African diaspora. Further research will investigate diaspora policies and incentives, in African countries and what opportunities exist to engage alumni of international universities.

Here are some thoughts from some 'delayed return' alumni:

'I have pioneered and produced significant success stories in entrepreneurial ventures in the United States, Europe and Africa. Tracking my professional expertise and global interests, several of these ventures have been multi-national by design and purposefully structured to benefit Africa.'

'Let me put it this way. It's never occurred to me that I will not return. I'm still South African. I kept my proud South African identity, I kept my passport. I could always return. People say when did you leave? And I say, "I never left. I wandered away, I may return".'

Social and civic engagement

Another important research question is the extent to which African alumni are socially engaged with their country of origin or elsewhere on the continent, and the role of international education in affording opportunities or creating barriers for social engagement. When asked the overall question 'Is your current job related to African social and economic development?', 60% of alumni responded in the affirmative, with 26% and 74% residing in the diaspora and countries of origin, respectively.

The data tells a positive story of 'social change leadership', with 86% of alumni exercising leadership positions, 40% self-identifying as social entrepreneurs, and just over half undertaking leadership roles in social and civic organisations (above). The data suggests that the social contributions of African alumni of international universities to their countries of origin persist over time and space, independent of physical residency.

This is further illustrated by the following quotes:

'No, I was a pan-Africanist. The work I did at the bank was to help Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia. The reforms that I had influence on were put in place. Ghana gave me an opportunity, but I paid back to Africa.'

'I look at what Boko Haram is doing in the North, and I can't - I'm not in a position to actually go physically and do anything, and I'm not sure what that thing would be. But I am in a position to try and write and raise up people's voices. So I am very, very active behind the scenes.'

'So somehow, it's very rare that there's a total cut off. It's very rare. If it happens, it must be something political, or some family catastrophe that that person might be going through. I mean it's human. You want to give back to where you're from. You want to share your successes with those guys who helped you from the very beginning.'


Some alumni are leading truly transformative changes in government policy, corporate governance, university structures, and health and education reforms, among other arenas; changes that could not have been accomplished from the outside. These transformative leaders who return to Africa attribute their international education, and continuing international collaborations and networks, with giving them the confidence, skills, and resources they need to endure challenging periods at home, and, eventually, succeed and thrive.