Brain Drain - From North to the South

Brain Drain - From North to the South
Shutting the door on foreign students and immigrants in the west, may have a totally unexpected consequence –the return of talented prodigals to home shores!

In line with the current thought process in the Trump Administration, a ruling from America’s much-feared Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came as a rude shock to thousands of foreign students. International students taking classes solely online were to be sent back to their home countries, in the absence of in-person classes due to COVID-19. Harvard and MIT, earning billions from their foreign clientele, were quick to file a lawsuit that was backed by 200 other institutions. Professors came together online to offer one-on-one classes to retain the students.

Legally caught on the wrong foot, the ICE rescinded and students were allowed to stay on. However, those starting the new academic year (2020-21) would not be able to avail of in-person classes and would have to pay the entire fee to take online classes. This stipulation though is not new and has been adopted by institutions in other countries as well, with the hope that students would be able to join classes when restrictions on travel ease.

This new policy may set a precedent with international students finding the country less attractive to study in. A report by the National Foundation for American Policy reckons that institutions in the U.S. will experience a decline in enrolment of international students ranging from 63 percent to 98 percent in the 2020-21 academic year.


Every cloud has a silver lining, and it appears that this ruling too may have some positive outcomes. With rising animosity for overseas talent in western countries due to their own declining employment figures, thousands of talented, well-qualified aspiring job seekers from developing countries like India would have second thoughts of migrating on job visas. Some countries who are acutely feeling the adverse impact of brain drain on their growth trajectory may well welcome this development for the larger national good.

Life in the west has been a dream for most citizens from developing countries, especially India. A 2019 OECD survey lists, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada as the most attractive countries for immigrants because of favourable admission and stay conditions. The U.S. is 4th in the list while the UK does not feature in the top 10.

Countries that have quicker procedures for processing applications and offer better residence conditions to highly qualified migrants and their family members are obviously more attractive.

'Brain drain' is a much-bandied term used by developing countries bemoaning the fact that their best talent is charmed away by richer countries in the west. The opposite, the 'reverse brain drain', would be something these countries would prefer with highly skilled migrants flowing back to their homelands. Similarly, bright students who qualify for seats against stiff competition in the best western universities are quickly snapped up by foreign companies at very high salaries, making their return home improbable. Only a few decide to head back home in order to make a difference. Perhaps, the stringent visa rules will be an added incentive for this talent to seek a future in their own country.

Countries like the U.S. have grown and got richer on the back of generations of migrants, a fact that is widely accepted. The statistics speak for themselves. Chinese and Indian immigrants work in nearly a quarter of Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms. Eight out of the 11 Americans who shared Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry in the past three years were born elsewhere. Approximately 40 percent of MIT graduates are naturalised citizens. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk is from South Africa, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. Vivek Wadhwa, author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent (Wharton Digital Press, 2012), estimates that there are about 1.5 million skilled workers in U.S. immigration limbo. In the past few years, up to 2,00,000 foreign-born Americans have returned home each year.


This reverse brain drain that has been stimulated by lucrative government incentives and tough immigration controls has spawned flourishing new scientific havens across the world, from South Asia to Scandinavia. The global south is developing and growing at a fast pace — research and development options have opened up greatly, and there are better opportunities to work with new technology.

There have been umpteen funds set up for and from the global south, such as the Mexico-Chile Joint Cooperation Fund; FAO-China Fund; India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Fund; and India-UN Development Partnership Fund. This is an alternative to the current system of development routed through the west, with a more participatory approach to development and collective self-reliance. India, being one of the largest along with China in the south, would also benefit from this. The saturation of people for a cluster of high-paying jobs, and consistently increasing competition, is enough to woo people back to their home countries, where most turn entrepreneurs and try and bring new life into the economy. Of course, the education systems are still revered overseas.


  • While those who can finance the expenses of a foreign education and wish to see their wards settle abroad may bemoan this turn of events, a balance may have to be sought between the need to train our best brains abroad and retain some for the nation’s growth after they have been educated abroad.
  • The best way to deal with the issue of loss of skilled labour is to focus on "circulation" of skills, which would yield mutual benefits for both sending and host countries. Greater cooperation between the countries would help initiate this.
  • It is not only the financial benefits that attract talent to the western shores. The seamless processes which make working more efficient, the recognition of merit and a culture which does not let progress be impeded by red-tapism are some essential features which make migrants seek a better future abroad. Home countries must provide a similar environment to retain talent.

Author: Synergia Foundation Research Team