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A sure sign of a higher education sector that is still in its developmental stage is a brain drain of young researchers to Western universities.

For many years, this has been China’s experience, even as it spends huge amounts of money on its goal of becoming a “powerhouse of higher education” by 2050. But now, efforts to stem the loss of talented academics are paying off, according to the president of China’s major science funding agency.

“Just 10 years ago, the flow of talent was at about seven Chinese students leaving for every one that came back. Now it’s six [students] returning in every seven,” said Wei Yang, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. “The brain drain is almost over.”

Times Higher Education logoYang said that the improvement was partly due to an increase in the number of scientists coming from abroad to work in China, but was also driven by the growth of China’s youth population and improvements in domestic universities.

“We get more and more Ph.D. students coming up every year -- about 70,000 -- so there’s a big talent pool,” he said.

China’s investment in higher education shows no sign of abating as it looks to build a modern knowledge economy. Mainland China is now jointly the sixth most-represented nation in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, with Peking and Tsinghua Universities in the top 30. The country’s latest excellence initiative, “Double First Class,” looks to achieve “world-class” status for 42 universities by the middle of the century.

China’s strategy focuses heavily on science and engineering subjects, and the NSFC’s budget has increased from 18 million renminbi ($2.8 million) at its founding in 1986 to 28.6 billion renminbi ($4.5 billion) last year.

Yang said that his funding agency was now looking to recruit from abroad just to keep on top of the growing burden of administering these funds.

“We have only 230 staff for the whole of the NSFC and every year we have to handle 200,000 grant applications -- that’s an average 1,000 applications each,” he said. “It’s important to consider how to keep improving on quality when you have this heavy workload.”

With a career spanning 30 years, Yang, an internationally acclaimed engineer and materials science researcher, said that he had nonetheless come across several “surprises” during his five years as leader of the funding body.

“The first is that over the past five years, the people who get grants are so much younger than before,” he said.

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