Diaspora talent is lured back, but fails to stay

Hai Tran never imagined, when he waved farewell to his parents at the boarding gate of Vietnam’s Noi Bai airport in 1998 to study information technology at a Russian university, that it was the start of a 15-year adventure in several foreign countries.

The recipient of a government scholarship, he expected to return to Vietnam within two years of graduating – a condition of the scholarship programme. But one way or another, Hai dodged the rule, moving to Canada after graduation and then to the United States, where he still works.

“When you are 23 your perspective on life is different to when you were 18 or 19. You are thinking about how to support your parents, how to prepare to finance your own family in the short term and, ultimately, how to avoid the knowledge and skills acquired at university being wasted,” Hai told University World News.

“If I returned to Vietnam in 2003 or 2004, how could I achieve all of my desires? I did not have a house in a big city like Hanoi and my parents were only farmers,” Hai said.

He is not unusual among Vietnamese born after the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975, who had opportunities to study abroad and never returned. Unofficial data estimates that study-abroad students who stayed overseas number between 10,000 and 20,000.

According to the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese, there are nearly 4.5 million Vietnamese living around the world, including 400,000 who have bachelor and higher degrees – a huge brain drain for the country.

In March 2004, Vietnam’s Communist Party enacted Resolution 36 on Overseas Vietnamese. Its objective was to persuade Vietnamese abroad to come back to support development in every sector, including in the economy, science and culture.

Few stay

The resolution had a positive impact on remittances to Vietnam and foreign direct investment from overseas Vietnamese, but was less successful in luring academics back to the country. And those who did return often left again, complaining of red tape, lack of autonomy and unsatisfactory working environments.

According to the Ho Chi Minh City Statistics Bureau, some 400 overseas Vietnamese returned to the city, over half of them to work in universities, colleges, technology parks and hospitals. But many did not stay long.

The Ho Chi Minh City Centre for Biotechnology lost 22 researchers in 2012 alone, according to a recently published official report, which added that the loss of returnees had affected the operation of sophisticated equipment and technology at universities and technology parks.

Saigon Hi-tech Park at one time hosted nearly 30 Vietnamese experts from the US, Australia, Canada and Japan, but now only a few remain. Equipment worth more than US$10 million at Saigon’s Centre for Research and Development sits idle because of a lack of experts.

The official Communist Party newspaper Sai Gon Giai Phong – Liberated Saigon – quoted the head of the technology park, Dr Duong Hoa Xo, as saying: “There were many reasons for these experts quitting their jobs: mainly low salaries, lack of accommodation and inadequate infrastructure.”

Need to address retention problems

Dr Phan Bach Thang, vice-dean of materials science at Ho Chi Minh City University of Natural Sciences, was quoted in official media as saying: “If these difficulties are not addressed, it would be difficult to attract overseas Vietnamese experts and scientists back home.”

Vietnamese expats are willing to devote themselves to the country’s development to help put it on the “global map”, said Tuan Nguyen, a professor of medicine at Australia’s University of New South Wales who lectures at Vietnamese universities but prefers to stay in Australia.

Low pay at Vietnamese universities is not the main obstacle for people like Tuan Nguyen, who have tenured positions in developed countries. The work environment is more important.

Even with younger scientists like Hai Tran, money is only one factor. “Since I am the oldest son, my parents want me to come back and I may consider it if I find a suitable job.” Hai implied that by ‘suitable’ he was referring to working environment rather than just salary.

Creating a good research environment requires money and other forms of support, according to Eren Zink, an expert on Vietnam’s science policy, who wrote his 2010 doctoral thesis on “The Science of Returning Home: A study of Vietnamese scientists with advanced international degrees”.

New initiative

In December, under the Resolution 36 scheme, the government released a draft regulation for consultation. It is aimed at attracting back highly qualified Vietnamese currently at overseas universities, to work in Vietnam’s higher education sector, particularly for shorter stints that might encourage them to stay longer.

The draft addresses some of the returnee academics’ concerns, including income tax waivers and favourable treatment when buying or renting a house.

And it is a coordinated policy that involves a wide range of organisations, including higher education institutions and the ministries of education and training, finance, foreign affairs, public securities, and science and technology.

Tuan Nguyen said the new plan was “better late than never” and had “some clauses that are more ‘advanced’ compared to previous plans”. But many areas were still unclear.

Xanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-German who returned permanently to live in Ho Chi Minh City after retiring, was even more cautious. The mediator of Sci-Edu Forum, a group of hundreds of overseas Vietnamese intellectuals, Xanh said he and others were not convinced about how well the new policy would work in practice.

“They should open the gate as wide as possible, and as soon as possible, and as unbureaucratically as possible, without delay or hesitation. It’s overdue,” he said. Instead there was “rigid overemphasis” on political ideology and some mistrust of Vietnamese overseas, “which only harms the country”, Xanh said.

“The most critical point is whether top government officials still consider science and education as pivotal pillars, dynamic sources of the country’s economic development, and consider attracting scientific and technological resources as imperative.

“If yes, they should find ways to attract the worldwide Vietnamese diaspora and through them, foreign resources. If not, they do not need the policy at all,” said Xanh