Today we in India are experiencing the benefits of the reverse flow of income, investment and expertise from the global Indian diaspora. The problem of “brain drain” has been converted happily into the opportunity of “brain gain.”

Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

 As colonized nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the first decisions of the new governments was usually to establish a national university. In each country, the flagship university was expected to train the cadre of professionals and leaders needed to build the new nation. Fifty years later, the results have been discouraging. With a few exceptions, such as the National University of Singapore (NUS), the top public universities in many parts of the developing world have failed to meet these auspicious expectations.

Persuaded by a combination of push factors (low salaries, lack of meritocracy, political instability) and pull elements (attractive remuneration, favorable visa policies, active recruitment), thousands of professionals continue to leave their home countries every year. Some of the countries that can least afford it have suffered tremendous loss of local capacity in fields critical to development, with debilitating effects on national governing structures, management capacities, productive sectors, and tertiary institutions.  At the receiving end, migrants from the developing world contribute significantly to the economic and social progress of industrial nations. Estimates indicate that the proportion of adult migrants with tertiary education leaving developing countries and moving to industrial nations grew four times between 1975 and 2000.

In recent years, however, observers have recognized benefits of “brain circulation” in the form of return flows of income, investment and knowledge from the diaspora. Some countries experiencing high levels of brain drain often receive the highest levels of financial remittances from expatriates. Such financial flows can help alleviate the impact of human capital loss.

An additional potential benefit of academic migration is the prospect for emerging research universities in developing nations to leapfrog the historic stages of institutional development by recruiting academics from their diaspora and other countries. This blog explores this dimension of talent mobility for institutional capacity-building, drawing from recent findings on national and institutional efforts to establish world-class universities.

Talent and WCUs

The superior results of world-class universities (WCUs) — highly sought graduates, leading-edge research, and dynamic knowledge and technology transfer — can be attributed essentially to three complementary sets of factors: (a) a high concentration of talent (faculty and students), (b) abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and conduct advanced research, and (c) favorable governance features that encourage strategic vision, innovation and flexibility (Figure 1).

The first and perhaps foremost determinant of excellence is the presence of a critical mass of top students and outstanding faculty. WCUs are able to select the best students and attract the most qualified professors and researchers, not only from the home country, but also internationally.

Brain circulation as an accelerating factor

One of the most powerful levers has been the ability to rely significantly on the diaspora when establishing a new institution with high ambitions. As illustrated by the experiences of Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) in South Korea and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), bringing overseas scholars back to their countries of origin is an effective way of rapidly building the academic strength of an institution.

POSTECH filled all full-time faculty positions with Ph.D. recipients, 60 to 70 percent of whom were renowned Korean scientists living abroad — Ph.D. recipients in the science and engineering fields were rare in Korea at that time. These scientists voluntarily returned to Korea because they were dedicated to the cause of national development. Nevertheless, the university’s offer certainly was enticing: an excellent research environment, a teaching load of only two or three courses per year, a sabbatical year every six years, a competitive salary that was among the highest within Korea, and faculty apartments near the campus. The unique two-step process of hiring … is interesting: First, as mentioned, the university hired a small number of experienced Korean scientists living overseas who had established their international reputations; second, the university asked all of them to initiate a search for promising young scholars in their disciplines. Every year since then, the backbone professoriate has successfully attracted a large number of talented young scholars.

Undoubtedly, HKUST’s most important success factor was the selection of outstandingly talented scholars and scientists … from among the senior scholar generation of the Chinese diaspora … HKUST recruited heavily from this vast pool of talented academics, born in Taiwan or Mainland China and trained overseas mostly at American universities, something that the other universities in Hong Kong were less inclined to do at that time … HKUST’s first president was a member of this unique generation of Chinese academics. A scientist by training, he had also been the president of an American research university with extensive access to research networks of Chinese scientists in the United States. It was highly significant for HKUST that a senior generation of scientists who had attained outstanding international reputations in their fields of expertise felt secure enough in their careers to leave their established posts behind and move to China’s Hong Kong. At the same time, many of the younger generation of scholars from China were looking at an increasingly saturated job market in American universities, or experienced the glass ceiling known to many foreign academics.

Using English as the main working language greatly enhances a university’s ability to attract highly qualified foreign academics and to produce leading-edge research. For example, the impressive achievements of NUS in recent years, as reflected by its rapid ascension in the major global rankings, are due in part to the contribution of its foreign staff, representing half of the teaching staff and close to 80 percent of researchers. By contrast, the University of Malaya has been hampered in its internationalization efforts because, until recently,  its use of English is less widespread in teaching and research.

The introduction of significant curriculum and pedagogical innovations is another accelerating factor, again facilitated by the presence of foreign academics. HKUST, for example, was the first US-style university in Hong Kong, which made it distinct in comparison to existing institutions operating according to the British model. The Higher School of Economics in Moscow was among the first Russian institutions to offer a curriculum that integrates teaching and research and to establish a supportive digital library.

Importance of the tertiary ecosystem

Outstanding research universities do not operate in a vacuum but require a complicated array of inputs and environmental supports. Key forces are at play in the ecosystem within which these institutions evolve, with a facilitating or constraining effect, depending on country circumstances (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Tertiary Education Ecosystem, Elaborated by Jamil Salmi

Within this context, policies that favor academic mobility and facilitate recruitment of foreign academics — from the diaspora or other nations — can make a big difference. Three elements are of particular importance: visa regulations, taxation, and management autonomy. First, many countries have strict visa rules and procedures not conducive to academic mobility. Second, income tax regulations may be an impediment. In Russia, for instance, the salary of foreign academics is taxed more than that of Russian faculty. In South Korea, by contrast, incoming foreign academics receive a three-year tax break. Last and perhaps most importantly, public research universities may be constrained by cumbersome rules that make it difficult, if not impossible, to offer competitive remuneration packages to foreign academics, including diaspora returnees. This is a clear lesson coming out of the comparison between the University of Malaya and NUS.


Though academic mobility has been a defining element of higher education from its beginnings, it has now reached unprecedented levels, and is likely to continue growing as countries and tertiary education institutions compete for the most talented professionals. As these few examples illustrate, a notable selection of universities in emerging economies have succeeded in building their teaching and research capacity by relying extensively on their ability to lure and keep foreign academics, often through directed recruitment from their diasporas. The present financial crisis in industrial countries, which has often translated into severe budget cuts in the tertiary education sector, may represent an opportunity for universities in emerging countries to pursue this avenue toward rapid capacity development. This can only happen, however, when supported by policy measures that effectively remove barriers to the mobility of highly skilled labor.

This post is based on an article published by Elsevier in their Academic Executive Brief.


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