Aug 312013
Are Foreign-Educated African Graduates More Productive Than Their Locally-Educated Counterparts

Picture: Free Digital Photos

For the last couple of years, lots of Africans have travelled out of their home countries to study. I’ll call them the “foreign-educated” For many, it is an opportunity to explore multicultural environments, gain international exposure and obtain globally recognised degrees that will not only set them apart from their peers, but help increase employment opportunities in their home countries.

Some of the most popular places Africans go to study are the USA, Europe (the UK, France, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany), Australia, Canada, Brasil, Malaysia, Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden, and Norway), India and China.  Many of these countries host a significant number of the “best” universities in the world and arguably have some of the “best” educational systems. But education in these countries, especially for foreigners, doesn’t come cheap.  Africans studying outside their home countries tend to come from wealthy homes, be on scholarships or have very supportive families who will spare nothing to see their relatives get the best education possible.

But when all is said and done, are foreign-educated African graduates better equipped to flourish in the African market than their locally-trained counterparts?

During a coffee break at an African career event I attended, I joined two African networkers discussing this issue. I took the back sit and listen to what they had to say. One of the networkers – Jane was of the opinion that foreign-educated Africans are generally more productive. The other – Helen, believe they are not. With their permission, I have rephrased some of the statements they made, to make the content more appropriate for public consumption without losing their meaning. Let’s explore their thoughts.

Jane: I believe many African students are limited by their environments. How can we expect the best from them, when they have access to obsolete and in many cases, no equipment to study with”? We focus too much on theoretical knowledge and too little on on-the-job training. If I am a graduate employer, I will take on more foreign-educated African graduates than local graduates, not because they are smarter, but because they would likely have work experience in international settings, some understanding of working with diverse people and be better able to adapt.

Helen: You are generalising. Many locally-educated graduates are as good, despite the educational challenges Africa face. It shouldn’t be a question of whether foreign-educated graduates are better or not, but the individual grasp of their qualifications, openness to new challenges and ability to think outside the box.

Jane: But it is difficult to be open to challenges and new ideas if your environment restricts you. In some African universities, open learning and communication as well as knowledge-sharing are not encouraged for cultural reasons, especially reasons related to the respect of elders.

Helen: Respect for elders does not affect the ability of an individual to express his/her opinion, as long as it is not expressed in a rude way. Many older people are open to discussing.

Jane: What of communication? Many local graduates tend to struggle. Have you attended graduate interviews in Africa and in the UK? I have. Many local graduates can’t effectively communicate and they generally lack self-confidence. On the other hand, foreign-educated graduates are better communicators and exude confidence. You can almost always tell a foreign-educated graduate from local-educated graduate.

Helen: I believe it comes down to the individual. I have heard stories of foreign-educated graduates not good at hitting the ground running in their roles and local graduates, better able to manage work situations.  Education is just a factor in determining success.

Jane: Yes it is, but it is also the main factor.

Helen: I agree it plays an important role, but overall life experience plays a much stronger role. A one year master’s degree which is what many go for after their first degree in Africa, cannot dramatically transform a person from an average to a world class graduate. A four-year degree would probably do a lot more. Simply attending a foreign university is not enough to make a person succeed. In a profession like Engineering, where the theory learnt in not very different from real life experience, anyone who really paid attention in school will succeed”.

Jane: I agree, but only if they attend good schools in Africa, which are very few. Engineering studies from top foreign schools provide an opportunity for students to receive intense exposure to real technical issues and study with state-of-the-art technology. Learning is a nice balance between classroom learning and practical experience, with knowledge gained applicable to real life situations. Many African universities use obsolete equipment and theoretical knowledge gained is usually not applicable to real life situations.

Helen: So are you saying that the successful Africans with first degrees in Africa and further degrees in foreign countries, owe their success to their further degrees?

Jane: Yes, to a very large extent.

The break ended, so did the conversation. As we went in for the next presentation, I reflected hard on the conversation I just heard. Both agreements were strong, but I agreed with some points more than others. What are your thoughts?

You may want to read my follow-up article:

Are Foreign-Educated African Graduates More Productive 2? – An International Recruiter’s Perspective

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