A new colonialism has emerged in this age of knowledge economies. Developing countries are being plundered not for their raw materials but for their brains. Australia, Britain and the US in particular are using sophisticated strategies to lure the world's best young minds. But experts warn there could be dire consequences for some of the world's poorest nations, particularly those in Africa. 'The skills race has its darker side, which is skills raiding,' said Roshen Kishun, director of the University of KwaZulu Natal and a member of the Atlas International Advisory Group, set up by the International Institute of Education in New York to examine global mobility of international students. A 'massive brain drain' was one of the factors starving Africa of its share of the exchange of knowledge and contributing to its inability to meet its development needs. 'The exodus of students and qualified people may be an unmitigated tragedy for some of the poorest countries unless steps are taken to reverse the flow,' he said. This siphoning off of intellectual capital was a consequence of the development of an international market in minds, which had also seen thousands of Hong Kong students leave to study overseas. Heightened pressure on the world's top universities to recruit the brightest students and scholars from other countries in recent years had increased the problem. Ninety per cent of the world's research and development funding allocated to higher education was spent in the US, Britain, Australia, Germany and Japan, Dr Kishun told a British Council conference on the international market in higher education last December. Even well-resourced countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and India and China remained on the periphery of the world's knowledge systems. In the case of sub-Saharan students, large numbers were drawn to the islands of excellence in research in the top performing countries never to return. According to a report by Unesco's Institute of Statistics, sub-Saharan students are the most mobile in the world, with one in 16 studying abroad. What it failed to mention, Dr Kishun said, was that many of them would not return and their countries would never see the benefits of their enhanced skills. A World Bank study found that 47 per cent of college-educated citizens from Ghana live abroad, compared with 45 per cent from Mozambique, 38 per cent from Kenya and 33 per cent apiece from Somalia and Angola. 'There are more scientists and engineers in the United States than in the whole of the African continent,' said Dr Kishun, who is also interim executive director of the International Education Association of South Africa. 'There are more Ghanian doctors in the US than in Ghana, more African scientists and scholars in the US than in the 54 countries of Africa. 'The loss of these highly-educated people is particularly devastating for Africa. Higher education is seen as a key force for transformation.' World Bank figures suggested Africa was losing 70,000 highly qualified people every year. 'To train that number of people would cost US$4 billion,' Dr Kishun said. 'So all the aid money we are getting we are putting back into retraining people, but it will be training them for export.' The drain is particularly acute in Latin America too. Guyana loses 89 per cent of its graduates to other countries, Haiti loses 80 per cent and Central America/Caribbean 50 per cent. Hong Kong has benefited from a similar flight from mainland China but now China and India are leading the fight back internationally. The late Rajiv Gandhi said he was not worried about people leaving India. He regarded it as investment in a brain bank not brain drain, because of the remittances sent back by Indians abroad and the increased likelihood of Indians forging partnerships with institutions back home. However, despite press reports of Indians who have done well in the West returning home in their droves because they would prefer their children to grow up amid the cultural values of their homeland, the statistics tell a different story. According to Jandhyala Tilak, of New Delhi's National University of Educational Planning and Administration, while 1,500 Indians returned every year, 30 times that number left annually. 'These are not small numbers,' he said. But the impact is minimal because of the sheer size of India's population and the fact that only 4.3 per cent of its graduates live in other countries.' The mainland, meanwhile, is encouraging the idea of brain circulation, the idea that people who go to study in the US and other parts of the world will gain access to information that could prove beneficial to China and is encouraging them to come back and open up businesses. Of course it is easier to attract returnees if there are high-tech and service industries offering well-paid job opportunities as can be found in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai or Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. Hong Kong has already faced down fears of a brain drain that surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s. A decade after the handover, many of those who left have returned, and there is more concern on the mainland that too many top students are taking places in Hong Kong than vice versa. Katherine Forestier, director of education at the British Council in Hong Kong, said the government was promoting Hong Kong as a regional education hub and looking to increase the flow of non-local students into the territory. 'It also wants as many Hong Kong students as possible to have overseas education experience through exchanges,' she said. 'Hong Kong universities are seeking to compete with their mainland counterparts and form collaborative links with them. I don't think the mainland universities are seen as a threat, just another challenge to remain competitive.' More realistic short-term solutions for African countries could include poaching agreements with 'raiding' countries, along the lines of the optional protocol on the recruitment of teachers developed by the Commonwealth and since adopted by Unesco, the International Labour Organisation, and by the Organisation of American States. This has particularly helped small countries in Africa and the Caribbean to reach bilateral agreements with nations recruiting their teachers, to agree on timing and numbers and, in some cases, on compensation to enable the source nation to train replacements. According to Steve Sinnott, the convenor of the Commonwealth Group of Teachers, the protocol has stopped big raids taking place. 'It is also about letting teachers who are recruited get more experience for when they return,' he said. But Dr Kishun said that, in an era of free movement of people and targeted international skills raiding, welcoming back expatriates, poaching protocols and 'brain circulation' drives were only partial solutions. The mainland, India, Taiwan and Vietnam are among countries making a concerted effort to bring back their best and brightest. But these measures are being countered by wealthy countries which are adapting immigration policies to attract skilled workers. Australia, for example, adopted a measure allowing international students studying IT to apply for permanent residence from within the country without requiring previous professional experience or being sponsored by an Australian employer. Similar policies have been adopted by Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany and the UK. Dr Kishun's university has come up with its own creative solution, which is to make exchange agreements with other universities that are genuinely mutual by exchanging not just students or staff but the relative cost to the university of sending them. 'We are saying to Norway that the cost of living in Oslo is one of the highest in the world - US$7 for a bottle of Coke for instance - so without strong financial support that is not going to be possible to send students there.' But if the Norwegians paid the cost of the South African student staying in Oslo and the South Africans paid the cost of the Norwegian student staying in Durban, exchanges could take off. His university then found financial aid locally to pay for the air fare and medical insurance. 'It's a creative way to ensure that the students who don't have the money can actually travel. We have to be tough on it because if it is not going to happen we don't want to spend a lot of time negotiating the agreement,' he said. The university has 65 agreements with peer institutions in 20 countries, and not just with traditional partners in the US and Canada but with others in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya. If every university adopted this approach it might soon become apparent which countries are genuine about pursuing a policy of internationalising education to the mutual benefit of all. The losers might be countries such as Britain and Australia, which have been to slow to change their perception of the international market in higher education as a money-making opportunity rather than a chance to develop mutual partnerships. But Dr Kishun said African countries must also accept their share of the blame because they replicated the curricula of their former colonial masters instead of tailoring education to local needs. 'For instance, the day a person graduates as a medic in South Africa they can come and get a job in Canada, Britain or other places.' He argues that if you change the curriculum to take care of local needs, for instance by focusing on tackling malaria or Aids, it will both benefit Africa and ensure that the doctor needed additional training to go elsewhere. The rush to sign agreements recognising each other's degrees ('articulation') could actually harm developing countries because it made it easier for people to leave. And the consequent flight of the best minds may fuel a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, costing poor countries the very people who were able to drive reforms. 'We have to decide, do we want to produce world-class doctors for African realities or world-class doctors for export,' he said.