Use + Remix

Special Report

Education brain drain

Developing economies have lost promising students to top universities in the West for decades. A global re-think of education may be needed to change it.

Image: Michael Joiner, 360info The “colonisation model” of higher education deprives developing economies of intellect, skill and the future generation of educated people. Image: Michael Joiner, 360info

Developing economies have lost promising students to top universities in the West for decades. A global re-think of education may be needed to change it.

Globalisation has transformed higher education enabling students from developing economies to access world-class universities abroad.

But this phenomenon has consequences: overwhelmingly, wealthy countries benefit the most as their higher education institutions recruit the best and brightest from developing economies — with most never returning after graduation.

This net impact of this is sometimes referred to as the ‘colonisation model’ of higher education whereby the developing economies are robbed of the intellect, skill and sheer numbers of educated people they require to build strong institutions as well as foster the next generation of domestic innovation in science and technology.

But in some parts of the world, this is changing.

Many Asian countries, especially China and Singapore, have invested heavily in their domestic higher education at home with the aim of training and keeping their brightest and best students while also attracting students from offshore.

Some universities have understood the problem and offer a hybrid approach, opening campuses in developing countries. Mitigating the need for domestic students to travel overseas to get a first-class education.

However, if universities remain the domain of the already-rich and powerful, we may never see the full potential of global education to solve problems such as climate change or viral and other diseases that defy national borders.


The number of students in higher education who travel overseas for study has grown from around 300,000 in 1963, to two million in 2000 and up to six million in 2019.

This still comprises just 2.6 percent of the world’s total student population.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw higher education institutions and schools closed in 185 countries, affecting about 1.5 billion students.
At a doctoral or equivalent level, international students represent 22 percent of enrolled students.

Women are more likely than men to enrol abroad in arts and humanities studies (62 percent of international students in this field are women), and health and welfare (63 percent). They are less likely to do engineering, manufacturing and construction (29 percent), and about equally as likely as their male counterparts to enrol abroad in social sciences, journalism and information.

Although students come from economies across the development spectrum, they tend to visit economies rated highly on the Human Development Index to study.



Quote attributable to Kumari Beck, Simon Fraser University:

“Among the many advantages of internationalisation are the potential for enriching and enhancing educational experiences for all students and, most importantly, the possibilities for systemic change.”

Quotes attributable to Adam Habib, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London:

“In many parts of the developing world, their institutions are being eroded by the very nature of the ‘global academy’. For example, scholarships provided largely by rich country universities and governments go to talented people from around the world, allowing them to travel to study and then, they don’t go back. “

“There are hundreds of thousands of people who still can’t be trained at the appropriate level, and we don’t have enough educational capacity and institutions in the right places. But if we brought global and local together in a series of very innovative partnerships, we could create networks of institutions. “

“All the substantive challenges of our time have a transnational character — whether it’s pandemics or climate change, inequality or social and political polarisation. To resolve those challenges, we’ll need to ensure that the developing world has intellectual capacities and skills. You’re going to need them as much in the Philippines as in New York or London.”

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