In a wide-ranging discussion on ‘Brain Drain: Can we stem the flow?’, a panel of experts discussed the global impact of ‘brain drain’ for a special BBC World Service recording of The Forum at Going Global, the British Council’s conference for leaders of international education.
“We face a world where there is this absolutely ruthless competition for the brightest and best,” said Professor Jo Beall, Director, Education and Society, British Council. “In a global, interconnected world, we can’t confine people, but there is a policy issue in terms of governments needing to invest in people.”
China has witnessed some of the worst brain drain in modern countries around the world, according to Professor Xie Tao, Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean - School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China.
Professor Xie said, “There are many problems and obstacles to China’s efforts to retain and attract talent. There are issues of food safety and environmental pollution and health issues, and all these things can discourage people from coming back to China to stay permanently.”
The panel agreed though that “ties of belonging” are what can bring people back. Jo Beall remarked that many people had left South Africa during the apartheid regime and developed careers abroad, but had returned to put something into the country. She explained, “It was the emotional attachment to a new future that provoked those returns. But ultimately you can’t control individuals; people will move and be incentivised by a whole range of emotional factors as well as financial considerations. “
Professor Xie agreed, saying, “In order to make people stay in a country and like the country, you have to have that sense of belonging which means identity, and identity is complicated.”
The panel were then asked what can help countries hold onto their best and brightest people to stop them from going overseas. Jo Beall said, “If you look at South Africa and China, both are associated with countries which have in the past had draconian policies to try and stop people moving. In both cases it resulted into spectacular failure. If we start to look at policies, we have to be careful about walls and barriers because they don’t work. South Africa has a very good reputation in terms of holding its people, for example its health service has pre- conditions for people to remain.””
Professor Olusola Oyewole, President, Association of African Universities, Ghana, said efforts to improve higher education institutions will help to stem brain drain.
Jo Beall agreed, saying, “If you don’t have investment in your Higher Education system or in the workplace to attract people to come home, then your country is more likely to be affected.”