At a recent event at Rideau Hall, hosted by Governor-General David Johnston, the Mastercard Foundation announced that it was providing $75-million dollars to three Canadian universities – the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia and McGill – to educate 270 African students over the next ten years. It appears to be win-win. The universities get a much needed infusion of cash and the students get an education in some of the world’s best universities.
But it isn’t a win for Africa. Most the students won’t go home. Worse yet, by having them come to Canada, it drains some of the best and brightest away from the universities in their home countries, thereby reducing their quality. They are not around to discuss the last lecture with their fellow students. Such a brain drain makes the academics in the students’ countries feel second rate. They are being told indirectly that their universities are not good enough to educate these students. And the home countries, seeing that Canada is willing to educate their best students, will commit fewer funds to higher education. Since others are picking up the tab, why should they invest in their universities?
There isn’t much support in Canada for improving universities in the developing world. Much of Canadian aid goes for primary education and basic health, but you cannot improve these without having the teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, and administrators to staff and run them. These professionals should be educated at institutions of higher education in their own countries. It won’t work to send them abroad to study, not only because most won’t go back, but the education they would receive is often not appropriate for poor countries with very different cultures from Canada’s.
Canada used to be involved in helping developing countries improve their universities. Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, one of the key figures in modernizing the social sciences in Quebec, was the founder and president of the National University of Rwanda. In the 1960s, many Canadians on a Canadian International Development Agency funded project assisted Makerere University in Uganda to improve the quality of education that it offered. And there were others. But more recently, Canada is mostly missing in action. CIDA does not have higher education as a priority; the International Development Research Centre supports research projects in the developing world, but is not in the business of helping improve developing world university departments that educate the researchers involved in these projects; many dedicated Canadian academics donate their time and money to assist universities in developing countries, but without the support of their own universities; and very few Canadian foundations give grants to support higher education in the developing world.
There are many excuses for the lack of interest. Partly it is that there is no quick fix in improving higher education. It takes years of steady work for there to be a pay-off; after all, it has taken Canada more than 150 years to have world class universities. And it is difficult to have measurable outcomes for programmes that aid universities. It is not like vaccinating children for small pox. Aid agencies and foundations do not take the long view and want short term measurable results so that they can show the tax payers and donors the immediate effects of their tax dollars and donations.
It might make Canadians feel good to know that the Mastercard Foundation and some of their universities are helping the developing world, but the feelings would be misplaced. Although beneficial to Canada, what the foundation has done is detrimental to poor countries in Africa. There is a better way to assist them. At Academics without Borders Canada, we think that it is better to help them improve their universities to educate their own experts and professionals that they so desperately need for their development.
Steven Davis is the executive director of Academics without Borders Canada