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Covid and geopolitical tensions ‘stem Asian brain drain’

Written by: John Ross
Published on: 17 Jun 2021

A Chinese girl explores a model of the brain at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum

Source: Alamy

Coronavirus, racism, geopolitics, demographics and innovation policy are converging to produce a “reverse brain drain”, with East Asia – and particularly China’s Greater Bay Area – already benefiting.

The decades-long tradition of Chinese and other Asian people pursuing education in the West has experienced a “very dramatic downturn”, heard the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, held virtually in partnership with Japanese medical institution Fujita Health University.

“That’s going to continue,” said Rocky Tuan, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I hope it comes back to normal, but I don’t think so for quite a while. Very smart students – a lot of them, actually – ended up staying in their home region, be it mainland China or Hong Kong. We saw quite a few students coming to Hong Kong as a result. This will increase the talent pool that stays in the western part of the Pacific.”

Professor Tuan said the pandemic was not the only factor impeding student mobility. “Let’s put it very frankly: in North America and parts of Europe, a lot of anti-Asian sentiment is bubbling over. That is going to be around for a little longer.”

He said China had been “pumping a lot of money” into innovation and technology, producing a “push-pull effect”, while demographic changes had reduced student numbers. “I think that the data already support this – fewer students going to the US, North America and Europe for higher education.”

Instead, he predicted, many would gravitate to the Greater Bay Area. “China is pumping [in] a lot of attention, cash and other resources. This will be an interesting magnet to attract many of the talents that otherwise would have gone off to North America and Europe – a significant movement in this part of the world. We’ll probably see…the result in about five to 10 years.”

The forum heard that demographic trends were affecting national university systems in different ways. Lily Chan, vice-chancellor of Wawasan Open University in Penang, said 595 Malaysian institutions of higher learning were vying for a pool of about 1.3 million young people. “There is a lot of competition,” she said.

The Covid pandemic had exacerbated matters, stymieing the recruitment of foreigners who typically made up about one-fifth of enrolments, and forcing universities to rethink their domestic delivery. Dr Chan said many Malaysian parents who had lost work during the pandemic, and could no longer afford private university fees, were telling their children to get jobs instead of going to university.

In South Korea, grappling with a declining school-age population, universities are also turning to international enrolments. “Ten years ago, the number of international students in Korea was about 8,000,” said Seoung Hwan Suh, president of Yonsei University in Seoul. “Last year, it was close to 160,000.”

In Thailand, a low birth rate and increasing life expectancy are remoulding demographics in a country where children aged under 15 already constitute just 17 per cent of the population.

Banchong Mahaisavariya, president of Mahidol University near Bangkok, said higher education commencements across the country had crashed from about 400,000 in recent years to 300,000 in 2020. “This is a very challenging problem in Thailand.”