JOHANNESBURG  (AFP) – Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand launched a campaign to attract Africa’s top postgraduate talent Tuesday, intensifying the continent’s battle for brains.

The university — also known as Wits — wants to enrol 1,200 more postgraduate students by 2014, in a drive to tap Africa’s growing education market.

Vice-chancellor Adam Habib said he was ready to engage in a “global war for the very best academic talent.”

“If we are going to be the best, then we have to secure the best scholars and scientists on the planet,” he said in a statement.

Enrolment in sub-Saharan African universities has boomed over the last four decades, growing by over eight percent per year, according to UN figures.

But while African universities are growing at a clip, the pace has been far outdone by growth in other emerging economies like China and those in Latin America.

Only South Africa’s University of Cape Town is listed in the world’s top 200 establishments, according to Times Higher Education rankings.

And African universities appeared to have lagged their European, North American and Asian counterparts in attracting international students, particularly those from China and India.

Research shows that graduates are more likely to settle in their host country after completing their studies, bringing highly skilled workers to the economy.

The Wits recruitment drive will take place within South Africa — the continent’s leading economy — but also in regional powerhouses Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.

Wits hopes to increase the number of international postgraduate students to 18 percent of the total 30,000 student body.

South Africa has a long history of attracting students, most notably the University of Fort Hare which during decades of racist and colonial rule provided a western-style education to black students from southern Africa.

Notable alumni include Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Robert Mugabe.

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