A taste of my forthcoming book– Weaving Success: Stories of Change in African Higher Education, to be published later this year by the Institute of International Education. The book chronicles changes at universities in nine African countries that received support from the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a collaborative of seven major U.S. foundations:

At universities across the African continent, young scholars often start off on the academic career path as tutorial assistants with bachelor’s degrees, and can wait years before the opportunity of further training comes along. This reality presents a frustrating dilemma, both for aspiring young academics who want to build careers, and for universities that desperately need them to advance and help build capacity further, yet have few resources to invest in their training.

While providing doctoral training in particular drives up an institution’s running costs substantially, the reality is that those few universities that do have the strength to increase the post-graduate (and particularly doctoral) training they offer must now do so, in order to meet the pressing demands of higher education expansion—and fast.

In recognition of this dilemma, the MacArthur Foundation supported young lecturers from Bayero University, in Kano, Nigeria, in obtaining their PhDs abroad, in order to help develop a critical mass of academics with the global connections and expertise necessary for building a culture of advanced training and research at the university, from the ground up.

Half a dozen of these young lecturers—all of them male—gather around the lunch table at Bayero, in order to share the experiences of their first few years in academia. All are eager to discuss and debate what their newly earned credentials will mean, both for their own careers and for the university, located in the arid far northern reaches of Nigeria. They are also daunted by the challenges they will face here, as they balance heavy teaching loads up against their ambitions to continue publishing and networking internationally, building on the connections they made while abroad. Without the program, “None of us would have had the opportunity to go and travel and study in those world class universities,” says Bashir Tyjjani, who recently completed his PhD in finance at the University of Dundee in Scotland. “We are now importing the culture of research back home, which will improve the quality of our jobs and our university.”

This aspect of a university’s “research culture” left a deep impression on Tyjjani and several of his colleagues, who relished being able to attend international conferences and contribute to journal publications. When Tyjjani returned to Bayero, for example, he took over as the head of the department, and decided to introduce a thesis monitoring committee, because he saw how it had worked as a mechanism for smoothing communications and heading off problems for graduate students working on their theses at Dundee. In addition, he says that he is now working to set up an exchange program and collaboration agreement between the accounting and finance departments at Bayero and Dundee.

In the past, few of the young lecturers sent abroad for training by the university returned, says Muhammad Bello, a professor of mathematics who previously oversaw all MacArthur-funded programs. The lure of higher pay, better resources, and greater opportunities was simply too strong. Before leaving on their MacArthur fellowships, the lecturers all signed pledges that they would return to Bayero after completing their PhDs. “We feel that it’s morally binding on us,” says one of them. “If we stay there, the whole aim of the program is being defeated.”

Few of the returnees around the table today, however, would deny that they were sometimes tempted to stay. Studying liquid crystals as an industrial chemist at Putra University in Malaysia, Abdulsalam Salisu travelled to South Korea, where he rubbed shoulders with the world’s leading experts. One of his Nigerian counterparts was able to register two patents—one in the United States and one in Australia—in the time it took to complete his PhD there. By contrast, young academics here and elsewhere around the continent are often so bogged down by heavy teaching loads, poor access to materials, and unavailable supervisors (to say nothing of arcane national patenting procedures and regulations), that it takes them as many as nine years to merely finish.

All of us have attended international conferences, and we presented papers with leading scholars in our various fields. Since we are back to Nigeria, we are going to implement some of the skills we have learned. Now all of us can go present papers in international conferences,” says Haruna Musa, who did his PhD in polymer chemistry at the University of Bristol.

Now back in the land of power failures and slow internet connections, however, the lecturers express fears that they will not be able to maintain the levels of productivity and connectedness that they have come to value so much. For all the recent gains that universities have achieved in improving internet speeds and reducing costs, connectivity still lags far behind much of the rest of the world. “We used to be on the Internet for more than 10 hours, in our own rooms,” says Idris. “Here, you have to go to an Internet cafe, and it takes ages before you can open a page. I’ve been back here one and a half years, and I’ve had such a heavy teaching load that I’ve done no research work.”

As we’ve started to publish our papers online, we are already known. Recently I reviewed a paper for the Royal Society. I’m sure they know I am here in Africa. But the problem now is that maybe you disappear,” says Salisu.

If properly supported, these new academics, with their valuable skills and new international connections, firmly believe that they can inject valuable new lifeblood into the university, and can help turn an obscure university in the northern extreme of Nigeria into a place where ideas from around the world are exchanged, adapted and re-shaped to suit a local context. Such is the promise of advanced degree training abroad. Says Tyjjani: “The future depends largely on how prepared we are to contribute… We’ve seen a lot in developed countries, and if we [can] implement some of the things we saw, there’s every possibility that our universities will also become centres of excellence.”