Scholars, come home

Philip G. Altbach and Wanhua Ma assess China's initiatives to persuade its academics working abroad to bring their expertise back

January 20, 2011

Credit: Bruno Budrovic

Conventional wisdom says that we live in the new era of the "brain exchange". The truth is, however, that the old-style brain drain continues to a significant degree and governments that expect to be able to lure academics back to their home countries are misguided.

Several countries have developed programmes to reverse their brain drains, including Taiwan, Japan, France, Germany and Israel, which last March approved a $300 million fund to attract top-class researchers back home. Statistics about the success of these programmes are patchy, possibly because the results are often disappointing.

In India and China - two countries that have put much effort into reversing their brain drains over the past 20 years - the majority of students who have gone abroad for study have not returned.

India has admittedly had some success in luring back its information technology workers: more than 60,000 Indian professionals returned home in 2009, the majority of them in IT. But when it comes to academics, India has found it difficult to match overseas salaries and must also overcome the often problematic academic conditions in its universities and laboratories. Some academics who were lured by the country's special programmes found working conditions and the academic culture inadequate and returned to their positions in the West. Only at the Indian Institute of Technology and Management has there been limited success.

China reportedly suffers from the worst brain drain in the world. According to a 2007 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 1.06 million Chinese had gone overseas to study since 1978, but only 5,000 returned. China's impressive economic and academic growth has apparently done little to reverse the trend.

The outcome of a Chinese programme launched five years ago, the 111 Project, reveals some of the deep problems involved. Introduced by the Ministry of Education and the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs in 2005, the scheme was meant to lure scholars back home by providing significant financial and other incentives to Chinese PhDs working abroad. They invited 1,000 top scholars from the top 100 universities in the world to build 100 world-class innovation bases at top Chinese universities, in cooperation with domestic experts.

The ambition of the programme sparked a lot of interest in China and, indeed, many universities have used this opportunity to establish research initiatives and centres. So far, 662 scientists have been selected for the 111 Project, and 310 of them are now working at Chinese research universities.

However, the programme has created some unanticipated problems. Some Chinese universities do not fully understand the international academic labour market and have relied on resumes, educational background, titles, personal contacts and recommendations rather than on careful evaluations of prospective candidates and their academic work.

In some cases, the sponsoring universities found that the scholars and scientists who agreed to return were not the ones most desired; they tended to be late-career professors from middle-ranking US and UK universities who, perhaps, saw a stagnant career in the West and desired either a fresh start or a cushy job in China.

Top-ranking Chinese academics from the best Western universities generally have not been willing to return permanently. At best, they agree to some kind of joint affiliation with an elite Chinese university and visit periodically to lecture, provide advice and collaborate with professors in China.

Another unanticipated result is salary compression - highly paid returnees earn much higher salaries than local academics, often creating envy and morale problems. The success of any academic department involves a sense of academic community, which can be shattered by highly unequal salaries or better working conditions for the returnees. When domestic professors find that a returnee may not contribute more than they do, they may become disaffected.

And while many of the returned scholars can still speak Chinese, they may not understand the new academic culture in China, and may be greeted by a lack of cooperation from local colleagues.

The truth is that as long as the conditions of academic work vary significantly from country to country - including salaries, the academic culture and academic freedom - the "best and brightest" are unlikely to return to developing and middle-income countries. Those who are most desirable - mid-career academics at top universities who are highly productive - are the least likely to return.

The best that can be done - and it is in fact quite a good alternative - is for universities to build ties with these overseas academic "stars". These ties can yield practical results that will neither harm the local academic culture nor demand impractical results.

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