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Nuances of Brain Drain

June 20, 2011

TORONTO -- "Brain drain" and efforts to combat it continue to be a major motivation behind a range of higher education policies worldwide. While some of those efforts have succeeded, the ability of the United States and a few other English-speaking nations to attract the best talent to their shores is likely to continue, with serious ramifications for the rest of the world.

Those were some general conclusions of a panel of experts here Friday at the First International Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education. (Inside Higher Ed is one of the organizers of the conference.) The experts also noted many subtleties in the flow of academic talent that sometimes escape the policy makers.

Noreen Golfman, dean of graduate studies at Memorial University in Newfoundland and president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, noted that Canada has gone through a series of waves of thinking about foreign talent, so much so that she said that someone could write a country song about it, to be called "At First My Baby Left Me, But Now She's Come Back Again."

A generation or two ago, she said, many leading Canadian universities featured faculty members whose accents revealed them to be American or British academics by birth and/or education. Then the universities placed a priority on hiring Canadians. Then, in the 1990s, the country experienced “a lot of panic and anxiety” about brain drain, about "our so-called best minds being hoovered up by fatter salaries" in the United States.

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As a result, the government created two different endowed chair programs, designed to attract the best talent worldwide to Canadian universities. The new hires are impressive in their credentials -- coming from places like the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Davis. And Golfman noted that getting programs like these going is particularly impressive given the decentralized nature of Canadian education policy, which flows from the provinces, not Ottawa.

But the success of the program has also raised questions, she noted, about whether all kinds of brain drain are equally valued. The chairs were all awarded in the physical, biological and computer-related sciences -- not the humanities and social sciences. And the 19 winners in the first round were all men.

While Canadians may be debating how to refine efforts at international recruitment, Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education (and an Inside Higher Ed blogger), said that the United States will continue to hold huge advantages in the overall movement of academic talent. While Canada may recruit some superstars with its national chairs program, it will attract far more talent from developing nations, he said.

Altbach said that globalization makes the mobility of talent inevitable and that, to a large extent, countries are helpless to stop it. As long as the United States and a few other countries pay higher salaries and have much better infrastructures, they will attract many of the best scholars from elsewhere. Even if the United States is now placing some of its dominance at risk through the deep cuts that states are making to public universities, the wealth (intellectual and financial) of the leading private universities means that top researchers will continue to come to the U.S.

At the same time, Altbach argued that brain drain is both more limited and more diffuse than people tend to think. Of the former, he noted that "we are talking about a tiny top of the huge system" of higher education all over the world. "There is not a global arms race for community college teachers," he noted, but one for top researchers.

And while there is a pattern of "centers and peripheries" with those in the latter moving to the former, there are actually many "centers," Altbach said.

South Africa, he said, is "bleeding" scholars to Britain, Canada and, to a lesser extent, the United States. But the country is "stealing from its neighbors," attracting academic talent from African countries that don't have South Africa's research infrastructure. Saudi Arabia is "hiring from other Arab countries, and draining some of the best scholars from Egypt and Syria," he said.

And, of course, he said, "the Americans steal from everybody."

'The Ethical Context'

Wisdom J. Tettey, a professor at the University of Calgary who studies globalization and African higher education, said he worried about the trends' impact on Africa and other parts of the developing world. "Some of what's called 'internationalization' is really just grabbing talent," he said.

Tettey said that he is not suggesting that Western universities stop recruiting talent in Africa or elsewhere. But, he said, "the ethical context is not being interrogated enough."

At universities and in countries recruiting from developing nations, he asked, "Is there any effort being made on the part of those siphoning these resources to make brain drain become brain circulation?" That could take place through efforts to promote meaningful academic exchanges, or building up of academic infrastructure in countries where talent is being recruited, he said.

Golfman said that there are issues to consider even in how brain drain is discussed. While she endorsed Tettey's view that there are ethical issues associated with such recruitment, she said that she had no doubt that foreign-born faculty members had significantly improved Canadian universities. "Diversity has been good for Canadian higher education."

She also raised questions about how these issues are discussed -- and what these discussions say about those who are recruited. "The presumption of brain drain suggests ownership of those brains," she said.

Altbach said that very few countries are considering or are likely to consider the ethical issues when they go after talent. Further, he said that the choice to move is not just about those recruiting, but also about the home country. He said that as many countries have expanded higher education access -- an admirable policy in his view -- they have done so at the expense of the quality of their institutions. This makes it more difficult for people to stay.

While Altbach said that most countries are not going to create an MIT or University of Toronto, he said that efforts to create a differentiated higher education system, with a research university, can make it possible for a country to advance. Further, he said it was important for countries also to provide "needed support" -- both financial and otherwise -- to teaching-oriented institutions.

Speakers noted that some countries that have experienced brain drain are fighting back. South Africa has a research chairs program for which one of the goals is to "attract back" those who have left.

Altbach said that one of the efforts that may have the most promise is a trend in China of allowing faculty members who have left the country for positions elsewhere to return for one semester a year. Conditions in China -- and issues such as the lack of academic freedom expected at Western universities -- may make it unrealistic for the country's universities to expect to recruit many people back for good.

"It's not going to happen on a full-time basis, but maybe on a part-time basis," he said. "Maybe this is something for other countries to explore."

 

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