Flights of human capital a.k.a brain drain
Legend has it: the black magician Doctor Faustus sold his soul to devil in exchange of 24 years of earthly knowledge and pleasure. As he was about to sign the contract with the devil's agent, his blood started congealing and a divine warning appeared on his arm: homo fuge, Latin for, "O man, Fly!" The Renaissance man Faustus had a different idea. He saw the flight not as a threat but as an opportunity to go near heaven and learn new things to add to the branches of knowledge that he had already mastered, and to eventually share the benefits with his poor colleagues at Wittenberg (little did he know that the devil had other plans).
In theory, this has to be the "first" literary instance of a complex issue: brain drain. I say it with caution as myths and legends are full of instances where culture heroes travel to the other world and smuggle in knowledge and resources. For instance, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and started human civilisation. Or, Jack pursued the seed of ambition that was implanted in him to climb the bean-stalk and fool the giants to steal their goodies, which can only be an allegory of colonial exploitations. Faust legend gives us an academic footing. The transaction of cross-border knowledge is one of the trophies of human migration and mobility. What are the atrophies?
A group of outgoing students of Dhaka University came to see me at ULAB. I asked them how many of them plan to go abroad; all 20 raised their hands in unison. They want to fly; they want to fly away. Do they plan to return home—I didn't ask. Instead, I told them about my return from the academic sojourns across the Atlantic divide. I told them about the mentors who shaped me into becoming who I am today. I didn't, however, tell them how my brown skin made my kind subject to extra-screening at airport, extra-surveillance at supermarkets, or extra-scorns from jingoist supremacists. I didn't want to dampen their spirit.
These were all bright kids. It would be a shame to see them all go, and not to listen to their career counsellors who poured into their ears with the elixir of BCS. Yet it would be a source of pride to see them perform at an international stage. The planned exodus, based on my spot survey, is not unique. A cousin of mine, who works at a multinational company after graduating from IBA, was telling me that most of his peers had got PRs in developed countries or were in the process of moving out. Some of them are investing in buying a second home. "If you want to send your children to good schools, get a decent healthcare service, or live a better life, the salary and opportunities that you get here is never adequate. The Return on Investment (ROI) is much higher in the developed countries," he reasoned.
Then again, what about the investment that the government has made in producing these graduates? How many millions does the government spend in producing a cadet college student who then goes on to become an IBA graduate? An engineer from BUET? Or a doctor from DMC? Or an early retired military officer? All to become a product in the export pipeline. The local job market is not ready to absorb them, nurture them, retain them, or utilise them. My office assistant is an electrical engineer from a private university, whose salary equals that of our chauffer.
I looked for a long-term human resource projection from the government in vain. Are there any HR demand projections in the service sectors? Do we really know our graduates? Does the industry know what the academic institutes are producing? There is hardly any assessment of our human capital. There is no strategic investment to develop particular skill-sets required by our job sector; industry linkage is a buzzword that adorns our official documents. I don't blame our young generation for their desire to fly away from their nests. I shall not quote someone who once said, "it is better to drain brain, rather than to have the brain in a drain". We have moved beyond that proverbial bottomless basket stage. On the contrary, we are the basket that attracts employees from other countries. We are the fourth largest remittance earner for our big neighbour who siphons out more than 5 billion dollars a year. Surely, a portion of that sum can be used to train our brains and stop the foreign ones from encroaching ours. Nevertheless, the pull of the glamour and glory of western life will remain. The migration of human capital, popularly known as brain drain, is a natural phenomenon, and we need to make the best use of it.
Recent research shows that brain drain is not necessarily a loss for the sending country. Brain drain can contribute to the development of the home countries through brain circulation and linkage. Even if the highly-skilled professionals from the developing countries decide not to return from the host countries, they can still contribute to the social and economic development of their home countries. To optimise the benefit, a clear understanding of the high-skilled labour flows involving brain retention, brain gain, brain circulation and brain linkages is needed.
In an ideal world, the national infrastructure should retain its human capital by creating not only growth opportunities or social safety-nets but also a critical mass of educated professionals. The job market needs to expand beyond its traditional niche to encourage an entrepreneurial culture where our graduates stop becoming job-seekers and start becoming job creators.
Brain gain can only happen if we can attract foreign scholars to become part of our system. The migration of Jewish scholars to the US after the Second World War is a case in point. For us, perhaps, the relevant categories are brain circulation and brain linkages.
We have to accept the fact that mobility is a natural human impulse. In this age of globalisation, millions of students are crossing their national boundaries in search of better education, better life. Two top sending countries—China and India—have benefited immensely from the brain circulation and brain linkage. Even a country like Bhutan has adopted a clear policy to manage its human capital. While Bhutan wants its graduates to go abroad and benefit from the best practices, it closely monitors a permanent return migration by offering a loan scheme and scholarship programme for its students applying in STEM. The government has also drafted a plan to assess the global human resource requirements so that their graduates will have greater chances of getting employed outside Bhutan.
Given the high number of students and emigrants who have already settled in the developed countries, Bangladesh can start off by focusing on brain linkages. This means we need to foster the home-host interactions to explore possibilities beyond the monetary remittances. There should be ways to engage our "brain abroad" with our universities and industries. The human capital needs to be translated to social capital. The experiences of India and China can guide us in developing our national infrastructure at an international level and producing a critical mass so that our returnee scholars feel comfortable in spending a term or initiating joint collaborative research works. In other words, we need to make more investments in higher education so that we can engage our brains abroad. For instance, if an electrical engineer wants to engage in a research on AI or cloud computing, s/he will surely look for a sophisticated lab or updated student associates.
True, our students will fly away. We have given them the wings; we expect them to leave the nest—not because it is ruined, but because we expect them to acquire further knowledge from the best ideas and practices out there. At the same time, we must fix our nests in a way that attracts our migratory scholars to come back, get involved, and train others about the trophies and atrophies they collected during their flights.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.
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