The global brain race – Robbing developing countries

The rich world is worrying about skills shortages, especially at the upper levels of their economies. The causes are many – such as a ‘demographic cliff’ in Japan and some European countries, significantly reducing the numbers of university-age people, especially too few students enrolling in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields; a levelling off of access; and low degree-completion rates.

What is a solution to these problems? Increasingly, it is to boost the ‘stay rates’ of international students – in other words, to convince international students, mainly from developing and middle-income countries, to remain after they complete their degrees.

To oversimplify, the rich are stealing the brains of developing countries – or for that matter any qualified brains that can be lured.

Although the brain drain has been part of academia for a century or more, the situation is increasingly acute for all sides. For developing and emerging countries, the danger is that they will be left behind in the global knowledge economy, thus permanently damaging their futures.

Current realities

In the era of globalisation, it may be a bit of an exaggeration to call this a deliberate policy to encourage brain drain, but only slightly. Stay rates are already quite high. For example, 80% or more of Chinese and Indians who have obtained advanced degrees in the United States over almost a half-century have remained in the country.

It is hardly an exaggeration to point out that a significant part of Silicon Valley has been built with Indian brainpower.

A recent analysis of data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that the large majority of doctoral recipients from developing countries plan to remain in the United States, contributing to the academic labour force, particularly in the STEM fields.

While data are seldom available, other European countries and Australia no doubt show similar trends. However, return rates are modestly increasing globally as developing country economies improve and some of the rich world remains mired in recession.

Subsidies from the poor to the rich

Emerging and developing economies are actually contributing significantly to the academic systems of wealthier countries. International students contribute to the economies of Europe, North America and Australia while they are studying as well as if they remain.

Data from 2011 indicate that the 764,000 international students studying in the US contribute more than US$22 billion to the American economy annually.

Similar statistics can be cited for the other major host countries. Indeed, Australia earns US$17 billion from international scholars, and in the United Kingdom higher education is a US$21 billion earner. Both have clearly stated national policies to increase income from overseas students.

Perhaps of greater concern is the subsidies provided by emerging and developing economies – through their doctoral graduates who remain and join the academic profession in rich countries.

Here are examples from India and China, the two largest ‘brain exporters’ in the world. It should be noted that these statistics are suggestive, since details are unavailable and data points vary.

In 2012, 100,000 Indian students were studying in the US, mostly at the post-baccalaureate level. The large majority of these students remain after earning their degrees, and many join the local professoriate.

Using UNESCO statistics, a rough estimate is that it costs the Indian taxpayer around US$7,600 in purchasing power parity, or PPP, to educate a student from primary schooling through to the completion of a bachelor degree.

It can be estimated that an Indian family may invest a similar amount in the education of a child – particularly since many of the young people who qualify for admission to overseas universities have been educated in private, English-medium schools in India – for a total estimate of US$15,000.

Thus, the approximate Indian investment in America, by paying for the education of 100,000 young people through to the completion of the bachelor degree, is approximately US$1.5 billion annually.

The China figures are likely even higher. Although public expenditures on education are not available, research shows that the average Chinese family invests US$39,000 PPP dollars to educate a student from primary schooling through to the completion of a bachelor degree.

There were 194,000 students from China studying in the United States in 2012. One can estimate that Chinese families were investing US$7.6 billion in brainpower in the United States. Significant additional funding from Chinese state sources was also being invested, although figures are unavailable.

It seems possible to approximate the educational contributions of the various, mostly developing, countries – whose young people are studying abroad – to the economies of the host countries. While not all of these students will remain after completing their studies, the sums are significant.

In addition to direct costs, the host countries benefit from an immense amount of intellectual capital from some of the brightest young people from the developing world.

At the same time, the losses for developing countries are huge – for academe in particular, in research and teaching talent, new and innovative ideas that might have been cultivated from overseas experience, and practices in university management, among many other aspects.

Rich country strategies

Hans de Wit and Nannette Ripmeester provided an excellent summary of some of the policies aimed at increasing ‘stay rates’ through changes in immigration policy, the provision of scholarships, closer links between universities and employers and others, in an article in University World News in February.

There is wide agreement in Europe and North America that new initiatives to entice the ‘best and brightest’ of professionals from other countries, whom they educate, to stay and join the local labour force are a good idea.

Efforts to liberalise visa regulations, open employment opportunities, permit postgraduate work, ease degree recognition, improve cooperation between universities, governments and industry, and many other initiatives are being implemented.

Countries – such as the United Kingdom and Australia – that recently implemented more stringent immigration limits are rethinking their policies. The US National Academy of Sciences and universities advocate liberalising visa regimes, in order to make it easier for foreign graduates to remain and work in the United States.

There is absolutely no recognition of any contradiction between, for example, Millennium Development Goals, which stress the necessity for educational development in emerging nations, and policies aimed at attracting the best brains from developing countries.

African countries such as South Africa and Botswana, which have relatively advanced higher education systems and pay more attractive salaries, also lure talent from elsewhere in Africa.

The academic brain drain operates between the major ‘academic powers’ as well. Germany tries hard to attract its postdoctoral and doctoral graduates, working in the United States, back to Germany, with only limited success.

A more stable academic career structure and somewhat higher salaries in the United States are attractive, and American universities try to keep the brightest international graduates, whatever their nationality.

The complexities of a globalised world

While location still matters and the world is by no means flat when it comes to academic excellence and power, globalisation has certainly impacted on universities and academic systems worldwide. The internet has made communication and collaboration much easier.

The proportion of research and publication conducted jointly by academics in more than one country has grown dramatically at the top of the system. Distance education, joint degree programmes and branch campuses exhibit another aspect of a globalised academic world.

None of this, however, makes up for losses in personnel.

China, as a country with large numbers of academics working overseas, has instituted several programmes to lure top Chinese researchers back to China. Joint appointments have also been offered for academics in key fields, so that Chinese universities can benefit from top scholars who wish to remain abroad.

Other developing and middle-income countries also seek to leverage the academic diaspora by encouraging joint research, attracting investment, sponsoring academic organisations and other means.

Successful programmes have at least ensured that top local talent can benefit from expertise from compatriots who live abroad. Countries such as South Korea, Turkey, Scotland and others have implemented programmes.

In all of these cases, however, for obvious reasons the advantage remains with the major global academic centres. Also, location matters a great deal: being part of an academic community is a much more powerful draw, even, than internet-based communication or sabbaticals or summers abroad.

Stable academic careers, attractive salaries, academic freedom, and unfettered access to the latest scientific and intellectual ideas, among other things, are a tremendous attraction.

Few programmes to bring back researchers and academics or efforts to limit academic mobility have been very successful.

The fact is that until universities in developing countries offer the academic culture and facilities that top academics expect – including academic freedom, unrestricted information access, and laboratories – they will be unable to attract and retain top academic talent, but the policies of the rich countries certainly do not help.

Academic justice?

Do the ‘academic powers’ have any responsibility to developing academic systems?

A sense of responsibility for encouraging doctoral graduates from the developing world to return home, to build universities, and to improve the quality of emerging academic systems is entirely absent from the current discussion.

The only concern is to improve ‘stay rates’ and liberalise immigration rules to ensure that the maximum number of the best and brightest from the developing world remains.

Should the rich world at the least, in the context of Millennium Development Goals, remit to the developing world the costs incurred by developing countries in educating their non-returning young people?

There are many ways to at least ameliorate the situation – for example, joint doctoral degrees that provide young, developing country scholars an opportunity to study abroad for part of their PhD work, while retaining a link to their home university and at the same time building research capacity.

Then, at least, developing countries would not be directly subsidising the academic systems of the rich.

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


I took great exception to Philip Altbach's offensive opinion piece, "The global brain race – Robbing developing countries". Altbach's feudal attitude can be summed up in his comment: "To oversimplify, the rich are stealing the brains of developing countries – or for that matter any qualified brains that can be lured."

This is not an oversimplification, it is an indication of an attitude that people are somehow the property of the countries from which they come. After all, one cannot steal something unless that thing is the property of another, and individuals are not the property of their countries of origin.

When people travel internationally for work or study, they do so because they are capable of making the decisions that are best for themselves and their families. If opportunity in one country is better than in another, it is perfectly reasonable for people to choose to prefer one to the other, regardless of what colour passport they hold.

Higher education policy makers should feel no guilt whatsoever in offering superior opportunities to all comers, whether from that country or any other. Free movement of people is a fundamental human right. To try to design systems contrary to that principle is to deny that right.

It is true that education is expensive, and that governments in low- and middle-income countries are worse off if many educated individuals choose to emigrate. But that is best stemmed by those countries abandoning failed policies that make talented individuals want to leave, not by pretending that national origin is some sort of title deed.

Steve Foerster