Brain drain or brain gain?

By Atta-ur-Rahman & STK Naim

National University of Sciences and Technology

A highly skilled workforce is the key to the development of a knowledge economy. Countries that have invested massively in their human resources have been able to establish high-technology industries with the resulting stupendous impact on their respective economies. The quality of higher education, availability of world class R&D centres and an environment in which innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish are essential to wealth generation and poverty alleviation.

In 1960, only five percent of the youth in South Korea aged between 17-23 were enrolled in higher education institutions and its exports were only $32 million. By 2009, Korea had expanded its universities and research centres, and massively increased its enrolment in universities so that 92 percent of its youth of the same age group were enrolled in higher education institutions. The result was: its exports had jumped to $354 billion. Similarly, the investments by Malaysia (about 30 percent of its budget) for the last 30 years has resulted in the fact that today 87 percent of the total high technology exports from the Islamic world come from Malaysia alone.

The technologically advanced countries are using all possible means to attract highly skilled manpower from abroad. A UK study by the Parliamentary Office of S&T published in 2008 reveals that out of 59 million migrants in OECD countries alone, 20 million are highly skilled. It is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of the developing world’s population trained in science and technology live today in the developed world (Lowell, Findlay & Stewart, 2004). Mehroum (2008) reports that the number of foreign students in developed countries is expected to grow to almost five million with 2.9 million from Asia by 2020. Most of these students are aware of the global market opportunities and will not return home unless appropriate working conditions and other incentives are in place.

The knowledge-intensive economies of the developed countries are competing for foreign scientists and engineers. Several countries are offering scholarships and other incentives (such as extended stay after completion of higher studies) to attract highly skilled foreign students. Some other incentives include programmes such as the H1-B visa programme in the United States, Green Card scheme for information technology experts in Germany, introduction of the highly skilled migrant programme in the UK and Australia. Developing countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and China, which are major contributors of highly skilled migrant workers are confronted with challenges of directing additional resources to higher education to increase access and offer higher salaries and other incentives in order to retain a critical number of scientists, engineers and other professionals.

Competing and advancing, Photo courtesy NUST School of Civil and Environmental Technology

Developing countries require a critical mass of highly qualified scientists, engineers and other professionals to attain socio-economic progress. Migration of highly skilled personnel deprives a country of skills of governance, management, technical expertise, creative research and efficient functioning of its public and private institutions. Institutional weaknesses in turn affect the quality of social services, industrial productivity and economic growth. But there are also examples of Southeast Asian countries, Taiwan and South Korea, and more recently of India and China, which have successfully used their diaspora as a powerful “Brain Reserve” abroad to stimulate high-technology industries at home.

The Taiwan government’s role in reversing the brain drain has been widely acknowledged in the investment of the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park. The Park was established in 1980 with infrastructure to attract foreign and local companies. In 2000, out of the 289 companies that were established in the Park, 113 were started by US-educated Taiwanese. Seventy companies have offices in Silicon Valley and many rotate their personal staff between offices. The Park is the centre of Taiwan’s rapidly expanding R&D sector and a major contributor to the country’s strong economic growth. It generated $28 billion and employed 102,000 workers in 2000.

Another example is that of India. A World Bank Report states: “India’s high-technology diaspora has been credited for most of India’s high-technology success. About 2.0 million Indians currently reside in the USA and are considered among the most successful US immigrant communities. Two-thirds of foreign-born Indian Americans have university degrees. Indian expatriates have become senior executives at major US corporations, such as IBM, General Electric, Intel, Microsoft, CISCO and American Express.

In nearly every instance where these companies invested in or outsourced work, the diaspora has been helping India through remittances, networks, access to knowledge and markets, and other resources.” (World Bank, 2007, Draft Report on Unleashing India’s Innovation Potential.) China and South Korea have also attracted their diaspora back by offering competitive salary structures and better working conditions.

Since 1971 Pakistan has adopted a policy of encouraging migration of labour to reduce unemployment pressure and increase remittances. According to the ministry of overseas employment, between 2000-2005 1.64 million Pakistani nationals emigrated. These included 69,404 professional and skilled workers with tertiary-level education. A World Bank study for improvement of transport infrastructure in Pakistan reports that 70 percent of engineers trained in 2006 had emigrated from Pakistan, along with thousands of other professional workers, including nurses, doctors, accountants and production workers. There can be no greater tragedy for a country than to lose its brightest professionals to foreign lands since it cannot offer them suitable opportunities at home.

UET Lahore

Pakistan was on the verge of establishing seven world-class foreign engineering universities in 2008 with

integrated technology parks. These were the German and Austrian engineering universities in Lahore, the French, Italian and Korean engineering universities in Karachi, the Swedish engineering university in Sialkot and the Chinese engineering university in Islamabad. Consortia of some 30 top foreign engineering universities were set up to ensure that the foreign engineering universities in Pakistanmeet the highest standards. The degrees would have been given by the foreign partner universities, thereby ensuring top world standards and saving much of the Rs100 billion annually spent by Pakistani parents in sending their children abroad for foreign studies.

The projects of these universities had been approved by ECNEC, chaired by the prime minister of Pakistan, but just three months before classes were to start disaster struck. The new government decided that to abandon this visionary initiative and all the hard work done during 2005-2008 was quickly undone. These universities would have changed the landscape of engineering education in Pakistan and provided a much-needed boost to the industrial sector. Similarly, the scheme to establish four law universities (with 40 PhDs in law being trained for each university) was also shelved.

Countries like Pakistan need to adopt policies which would enable the utilisation of a huge brain reserve abroad to reverse the brain drain and convert it into brain gain, much needed to jumpstart the economy by enabling technology transfer and fostering entrepreneurship and innovation.

We are thankful to Abdul Baseer Qazi, assistant professor at M A Jinnah University, Islamabad, and PhD Fellow, United Nations University-MERIT, The Netherlands, for his valuable inputs.

Prof Atta-ur-Rahman is the former chairman of the Higher Education Commission. Dr S T K Naim is a consultant at COMSTECH, Islamabad.

The writing first appeared in The News on July 14, 2012

Views expressed by experts in the Opinion Section are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect editorial policy of MyGlobalCommunityToday.

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Categories: Economy, Opinion

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