The complexities of 21st century brain ‘exchange’

The emerging economies of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – will, it is assumed, lure back home both students who go abroad to study and some graduates who have settled in the West, because of their dramatic economic growth and expanding higher education systems. The problem is that data seem to show this is not the case.

The brain drain, now euphemistically called the brain exchange, seems to be alive and well.

International Higher Education published research last August by Dongbin Kim, Charles AS Bankart and Laura Isdell showing that the large majority of international doctoral recipients from American universities remain in the United States after graduation.

Even more surprisingly, the proportion of those choosing to stay in the US has increased over the past three decades, seemingly regardless of growth and academic expansion.

There is strong evidence that we live in a worldwide era of global mobility of highly skilled talent in general and of the academic profession in particular, but this mobility flows largely in one direction – from developing and emerging economies to the wealthier nations, especially to English-speaking countries.

Much has been written about the supposed obsolescence of the term brain drain. Globalisation, it is argued, brings in its train a globally mobile and highly educated labour force – creating a kind of brain exchange among countries.

But the data reported here show that mobility, while quite sizeable, is one way, mainly to wealthier nations. There is a growing flow of ideas and capital back to countries of origin, but one cannot escape the fact that the major economic and social contribution is made in the country in which an individual is primarily located.

The realities of globalisation remain highly unequal. While brains may no longer be permanently drained, they are nonetheless siphoned, with the possibility (not that frequently implemented) of returning to their origins.

Who goes and who stays?

The countries with the most impressive economic and educational expansion seem to be those with the largest ‘stay’ rates, according to the National Academy of Science’s Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which tracks all international doctoral students studying in the United States.

For example, during the 1980s, 25.9% of Chinese doctoral graduates returned immediately after completing their degrees. In the 2000s, the return percentage had declined to 7.4%. India’s figures are also quite low – 13.1% returned in the 1980s and 10.3% in the 2000s.

Yet return rates vary considerably, ranging from 84% of Thais to 60% of Mexicans and Brazilians and 39.5% of Africans. A particular surprise is the European return rate, which has gone from 36.9% to 25.7% over 30 years.

There are other variables, as well.

Women are somewhat more likely to remain in the US than men. International students who obtain their bachelor degree in the US are also more likely to stay, as are students who come from well-educated families.

Field of study also seems to make a difference, with degree holders in agriculture (54.2%), education (48.5%) and social science (44.1%) most likely to return, and those in biology (19.3%), physical science (21.8%) and business (31.9%) less likely to do so.

The SED data exhibit some limitations.

Students typically complete a questionnaire asking for background information, educational experience and plans supplied by the National Science Foundation and administered by graduate schools nationwide when they submit their approved doctoral dissertation.

Some respondents may not be fully aware of their plans. Furthermore, plans reported in the SED may not work out. Some students may, for example, obtain a postdoc and return home after that for a variety of reasons. Others may, in the current difficult academic job market, unsuccessfully search for a position.

Because the SED measures only doctoral completion, it is likely that this group is mainly headed for academic jobs. We know nothing about return rates for MBA holders or those completing bachelor or masters degrees. But despite limitations, the SED is the most accurate tool available.

The study-abroad statistics cited here relate only to the US, but it is quite likely that the general pattern of mobility is similar for other host countries and, especially, the major English-speaking and large continental European nations.

Variations based on immigration policies, local labour markets, the relatively openness of the academic system and economy, language and other factors will no doubt affect stay rates.

Patterns and policies

Some economies and academic systems have benefited substantially from the patterns noted here.

For example, an estimated one-quarter of Silicon Valley high-technology start-ups were established by immigrants, many of whom received their advanced education in the US. American universities, from the most prestigious institutions to community colleges, have large numbers of immigrant scholars and scientists on their faculties, and a growing number have risen to top leadership positions.

Why do the international doctoral holders, counted by the SED, choose to remain in the US? While each case has an individual story, the general reasons are not hard to determine.

For all of the current problems of American colleges and universities, the terms and conditions of academic work – including salaries – are by international standards quite good. Having studied in the US, international degree holders have familiarity with the system and often can call on mentors to assist them in the local job market.

Although a few countries, such as China, offer incentives for top graduates to return home, such programmes are small and serve only the elite. For many, returning home to academic institutions that may be hierarchical and sometimes ill-equipped is not an attractive prospect.

In the emerging economies, academic salaries are low and moonlighting is often necessary to support a middle-class lifestyle.

Even in China’s top universities, which have received massive infusions of money and have built impressive campuses, the academic culture is often problematic for graduates familiar with the relatively open and meritocratic institutions in the U S or other better-established academic systems. While conditions and salaries may be better in the emerging high-tech and business sectors in the emerging economies, problems persist.

Efforts by countries such as China and India to lure their graduates home have been mostly unsuccessful. Some European nations, including Germany, have also actively tried to entice their PhDs and postdocs to return, also with only modest success.

The immigration policies of the rich countries also play a central role. Despite America’s success in retaining its international doctoral graduates, US immigration policy until quite recently has not been aimed at easing entry to the highly skilled.

Even now greater emphasis is placed on uniting families, increasing the diversity of the immigrant population and other factors. It remains to be seen whether pressure from the high-tech community and others will be adopted to open opportunities to the highly skilled.

Other countries, including Canada and Australia, have quite consciously tailored immigration policy to favour highly educated groups and have made it easy for international graduates to remain in the country and build a career. European countries are also moving in this direction.


The statistics reported here may come as a surprise to some observers. These data are likely an inevitable result of globalisation and the inequalities in higher education and in wealth and development that persist.

It is fair to say that the host countries are unconcerned about these imbalances, and indeed most are moving to strengthen their advantages through adjustments in academic and scholarship policies and immigration regulations.

If stay rates are a sign of continuing inequalities in the global knowledge system and in higher education, it will demand achieving a better balance and will require time, resources and in some cases changing academic structures and practices.

While there is much rhetoric about globalisation creating a ‘level playing field’, the realities show something quite different.

* Philip G Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States.