The pandemic brought an unexpected halt to the brain drain in many parts of the world. John O’Leary asks how long this respite will last.
The so-called “brain drain” of highly-educated talent from the developing world to more industrialised nations has been a concern for decades. But the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical shocks, like the war in Ukraine, have added new layers of confusion, even in some of the richest countries. After two years in which international travel restrictions have reduced the flow of students and graduates from their home countries, business as usual is returning in a big way. The contrast, as the global economy revives, has put the brain drain back into the headlines as seldom before.
In New Zealand, for example, some of the world’s tightest restrictions left companies with unaccustomed levels of choice in their recruitment at the height of the pandemic. But recent surveys suggest that almost a third of those under 35 still want to leave the country, if only for an extended period of travel. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment expects 50,000 New Zealanders to leave for work or travel over the next year now that the borders have reopened but admits that number could reach as high as 125,000, more than three times the total in 2019.
So far, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been relaxed about the prospect, arguing in Parliament that it was “part of our history” for New Zealanders to seek overseas experiences and return with additional skills. Critics, meanwhile, insist that skills shortages are such that the economy cannot afford an exodus now.
There is little room for argument, however, about the impact of the brain drain in many other countries, where the movement of highly qualified young people is overwhelmingly outbound and beginning to gather pace once more. Although by no means among the world’s poorest countries, India is a classic example, with the brain drain a constant subject of political and media debate. The country experiences more emigration than any other, and the fact that almost two-thirds of those leaving India are highly skilled or educated beyond school level, adds to the pressure on government to reverse or at least slow the trend.
The popularity of overseas study is one cause, with the number of Indians taking degrees abroad predicted to rise from 770 thousand in 2019 to 1.8 million in 2024, partly due to bottled-up demand during the pandemic. Many do not return home at graduation because job opportunities and salary levels are lower in India, where unemployment rates rise with the level of education, according to the independent Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in Mumbai.
Indians take the largest number of post-study visas in the United States and are more likely than other nationalities to settle there. Almost nine out of ten Indian nationals who took PhDs in STEM subjects in the US between 2000 and 2015 were still in the country when the Center for Security and Emerging Technology carried out a survey in 2017. More than half of the start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley are established by foreign-born entrepreneurs, many of them of Indian nationality. The benefits to the US are obvious, with over a quarter of engineers and scientists born out of the country.
The Indian government has responded with the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship scheme to encourage outstanding students to stay in the country to take their PhD. It has sanctioned the development of research parks at several Indian Institutes of Technology. In addition, budding entrepreneurs will have access to new incubation centres to support start-ups. The country is also trying to lure back scientists and entrepreneurs from abroad, as well as attracting foreign nationals through its Global Initiative of Academic Networks, focusing particularly on research partnerships and specialist, short courses. Long-awaited moves to allow more Indian universities and institutes to offer joint degrees with leading international partners are also intended to keep more students in the country. Such has been the renewed concern over the brain drain in India that individual states have launched their own schemes.
In Punjab, the Chief Minister, Bhagwant Mann, is promising to fill 26,000 government posts and stimulate other employment opportunities to reduce the predicted emigration of 275,000 young people in the coming year. China has long experience of the use of incentives to attract back young people who study abroad, a necessity in view of the huge numbers making that journey. They have included large bonuses or academic posts, particularly for scientists and engineers, and huge investment in Chinese universities to keep more of the best students in the country.
What neither the victims nor the beneficiaries of the brain drain were able to plan for, however, was the impact of the pandemic. In China’s case, the supply of incoming international students dried up almost entirely, with only South Koreans able to enter since March 2020. Although some Chinese students were able to study remotely for degrees with overseas universities, competition for places at the country’s own universities relaxed a little and many students chose to stay at home. China’s strict ‘zero-COVID’ strategy has made it slower than most countries to resume incoming and outgoing study arrangements, but there is no sign of the hiatus becoming permanent. For one thing, China’s 18-year-old population is set to rise by 5 percent, or 16.5 million, by 2030, placing still greater strains on the country’s universities.
Of course, this is nothing compared to the sudden and extreme brain drain underway in Ukraine and the sharp acceleration of a trend that was already underway in Russia before the war began. The Atlantic Council think tank estimated that up to 2 million Russians, mainly well-educated professionals, and academics, had left the country in the decade up to 2019. Countless others have followed this year, even though Russians are now prohibited from leaving the country with more than $10,000.
With international universities and corporations withdrawing from partnerships in Russia, skills shortages are likely to become much more serious. Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist based at the University of Chicago, who spent the last year in his home country, described the brain drain as a “tragic exodus not seen for a century”. Ukraine’s plight is naturally even more serious, with universities and other facilities destroyed, and students and academics either abroad or enlisted to defend their homeland. While Western governments and universities will no doubt help to rebuild the country when the war is over, some form of brain drain will be inevitable for the foreseeable future.
Beside such hideous events, other countries’ concerns about their own perceived brain drain look trivial, but a growing number fear the consequences of post-pandemic student recruitment and graduate employment patterns. Malaysian universities, for example, have been promoting themselves in Australia and encouraging the 15,000 Malaysian students there to act as ambassadors for their home country.
There are clear signs of the international demand for highly qualified workers gathering pace. In the United Kingdom, for example, where problems may still lay ahead in the aftermath of leaving the European Union, the universities’ representative body has calculated that there are a million more professional job vacancies than workers with degrees to fill them. In the US, the number of new international students is 68 percent up on the 2021-22 academic year, albeit after a sharp drop at the height of the pandemic.
For some of the poorer nations, the brain drain has become a fact of life, no matter how hard they might try to reverse it. In Guyana, at one extreme, 70 percent of those with a tertiary education have moved to the United States in recent years. But policy decisions can have a lasting effect on richer nations as well. In Italy, for instance, about 14,000 researchers left the country between 2009 and 2015, according to Istat, the national statistics agency. The exodus coincided with cuts in funding for research from 9.9 billion Euros to 8.3 billion, leaving expenditure well below the EU average. By 2019, Italy was spending only 1.45 percent of gross domestic product on research, less than half the proportion spent in Germany.
Even within the richest countries, the concept of a brain drain is becoming a concern. In the US, research is taking place at the University of Rhode Island to establish whether graduates from New Jersey, Virginia and Rhode Island are being lured away to more attractive locations to the disadvantage of their home states.
In an age of technological advancements, the ability of the most powerful nations, as well as individual cities or corporations, to offer a premium in salaries and future opportunities will always allow them to recruit the best from all over the world. But those countries and regions that have become accustomed to retaining more of their highly qualified young people during the pandemic may find the coming years especially challenging.