Brain Drain: How Our Thirst for Academic Talent Hurts the Rest of the World

Posted by Liz Dwyer

professor

If you attended a top university in the United States you were probably taught by some of the best academic minds from around the globe. But while a top international scholar is teaching in the States, who's educating college students back in that professor's homeland? Thanks to brain drain to America, those students are often being taught by second-tier professors. Now some scholars are calling for us to share the academic wealth.

Why is academic brain drain to the States so common? Similar to the brain drain that's happened in other sectors, our universities pay better, offer greater academic freedom, and promise pretty awesome perks. Over the years other countries have enacted policies to try to keep that talent at home, like funding specially endowed professorships, but in the end, it's pretty impossible to compete with the money behind the Harvards and Stanfords.

On the one hand, professors have the right to teach wherever they like, and any recent PhD grad will tell you that it's difficult enough to get a position at a university, period. If MIT comes knocking with a job offer, you better take it, no matter where you're from. But, Wisdom J. Tettey, a researcher at the University of Calgary who specializes in globalization and African higher education told Inside Higher Ed that simply chalking the brain drain up to an increasingly international job market is just a way for us to justify grabbing other nation's talent. Tettey says we should actually be questioning the ethics of what we're doing, particularly to universities in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

Indeed, according to Philip G. Altbach, the director of the Center for International Higher Education, Africa is being especially hard hit by this brain drain because when, for example, South African scholars head to the West, South Africa itself is stealing talent from "African countries that don't have South Africa's research infrastructure." Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is "hiring from other Arab countries, and draining some of the best scholars from Egypt and Syria."

The problem with this is if we want democracy to spread in these countries we could be shooting ourselves in the foot by taking away their top scholars. It could be argued that students in these places actually need greater access to the most brilliant academic minds.

So what's the solution? While Tettey doesn't think there should be restrictions on American universities recruiting talent from around the world, he does believe we need to come up with better ways to "make brain drain become brain circulation." Essentially, we need to be able to share the academic wealth instead of hoarding it all for ourselves. China's already experimenting with programs that would let scholars teach at American universities for one semester and on a Chinese campus for another.

It seems like a smart international policy for American universities to promote academic exchanges or, better yet, help create an academic infrastructure in nations we regularly tap for academic talent. If that happens, perhaps we can get a great education that doesn't come at the expense of our global peers. 

photo via Tulane.edu