US: Reverse brain drain takes off

For decades the large economies of the developed world - the United States and countries in Europe - have benefited from the slow seepage of talent and skills from developing nations, a process known as 'brain drain'. Now another phenomenon seems to be taking shape as tens of thousands of students, workers and researchers head back to their home countries.

Booming economies, political reform and government recruiting drives are bringing the educated elite back in droves, in what experts are now calling 'reverse brain drain'.

"Although the economy has been hit all over the world, developing economies have fared better than those in the West," said Rajika Bhandari, a deputy vice-president at the Institute of International Education (IIE) and co-author of the research report titled Higher Education on the Move: New developments in global mobility. "Job opportunities are quite lucrative."

Many workers are lured by the promise of accelerated professional growth and high demand for their skills back home.

Some 87% of Chinese and 62% of Indians saw better career opportunities in their home countries than in the US, according to a 2009 report by the Kauffman Foundation, a US organisation promoting entrepreneurship.

The study surveyed 1,203 Indian and Chinese immigrants who had worked or received their education in the US and subsequently returned to their home country. Further, 86% of Chinese and 79% of Indians cited growing demand for their skills back home as a main reason for returning. Other major factors were better quality of life and family ties.

"Family is an enduring reason and that will always be true," said Bhandari.

More developed countries such as South Korea and Taiwan with traditionally low rates of returning nationals are seeing a change too. The rapid expansion of Taiwan's economy and political reforms of the 1980s and 1990s has led to a large portion of foreign-educated scientists, engineers and researchers taking their knowledge and skills home.

"When I started in this field 25 years ago, you pretty much assumed 91% of Taiwanese would stay [in the US], now 91% have returned [to Taiwan]," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at IIE and co-author of the research report.

The term 'reverse brain drain' gained currency as a way to describe the exodus of highly educated, skilled foreign workers from the US. But Blumenthal and Bhandari suggest the phenomenon is not so much a brain 'drain' but rather 'brain circulation' or 'brain exchange, representing the more fluid movements of students and young professionals around the world.

"The current trend appears to be one where students and researchers are not just moving between two countries in a linear fashion, but are mobile in a number of different countries," said Bhandari. "It's more of a circulation than a drain."

An Indian student, for example, might complete an undergraduate degree in the US, move to Germany for a PhD, find work in Australia, then move back to India further down the line, or perhaps not.

"They may end up with two homes in a sense," said Blumenthal.

Recognising that returning skilled professionals can have a huge impact on a nation's economic growth and global standing, many countries have launched sweeping initiatives to recruit nationals to return.

Taiwan, for example, has established science-based industrial parks to attract young researchers, while Malaysia provides tax exemptions to returning nationals to make up for a possible drop in income. China has developed world-class laboratories and offers competitive research grants to entice researchers and scientists to return.

Blumenthal said strategic investments on the part of developing nation are essential.

"A booming economy helps, but some proactive work does need to be done by the home country to bring people back," she said.

It is not only foreign-born students and professionals leaving the US in search of greener pastures. There are some reports that American-born nationals are heading back to their parents' country of origin, reversing the traditional linear course of immigration, from one less affluent country to one that promises a better life.

This also applies to study abroad students, who choose to attend universities in their parents' home countries, said Bhandari. "These geographic and cultural linkages will always have a strong influence on mobility."

The departure of highly skilled workers poses a challenge to the US. Highly educated immigrants make substantial contributions to large swaths of the US economy and academic research, and their departure is keenly felt. One solution is to amend strict US immigration policies, which lead many students or workers on temporary visas to return home, when they may otherwise have stayed.

"America is rethinking that," said Blumenthal. "There are discussions in congress to change some requirements, as we need more science and technology graduate professionals."

The US will produce about 41 million degrees by 2025, which falls 22 million degrees short of its labour force needs, according to a 2007 report from the Lumina Foundation, an independent organisation aimed at boosting graduating numbers.

While the country can start by looking at its visa restrictions as a remedy, it needs to take a broader approach.

"To retain these highly skilled workers and stay competitive, the US will need to develop a new approach that entails coordinated efforts to address immigration policies, professional-development opportunities, and talented immigrants' concerns over family welfare and quality of life," according to the Kauffman report.

But the US still attracts the largest number of international students in the world, which Bhandari doesn't see changing any time soon. Mobility should not be seen as a competition between countries, but rather as a pie, which is now expanding, she said.

"There are new players in the pie, such as China and India," said Bhandari. "In many ways, that's a good thing."

But developing countries face some interesting challenges as well, such as ensuring bountiful employment opportunities and a high standard of living for returning nationals. Juggling domestic and international higher education needs could also prove tricky.

"How to cope with their own growing higher education population, while also trying to be attractive to international students from the outside is the real challenge going forward," said Bhandari.