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Brain Drain Again: Read the Chinese Tea Leaves

A concentrated effort to woo and bring the brightest Indian students overseas back to the country is the need of the hour.

January 27, 2021 / 03:58 PM IST
The Joe Biden administration is gearing up to make it easier for graduates of US universities with degrees in STEM subjects to stay in the US. (Image: Reuters)

The Joe Biden administration is gearing up to make it easier for graduates of US universities with degrees in STEM subjects to stay in the US. (Image: Reuters)

In the late noughties, the Chinese government realised that the country’s best students went abroad to study and never returned to their homeland. These brilliant students found work at top corporations in countries such as the US.

To reverse this, China launched the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’, in 2008. Besides awarding academics willing to work in China with a fancy title, they’d also be employed at top Chinese universities, paid well, and given lavish bonuses, research funding, and help with housing and immigration.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said in 2016, “Great scientific and technological capacity is a must if China is to be strong and if people’s lives are to improve.” To that end, the thousand talent programme has brought back nearly 7,000 top scientists from different fields to buttress the country’s intellectual firepower.

The Chinese Playbook 

Over the years, as China’s economy grew and conditions of life and work improved, Chinese students have been wanting to go back home after studying overseas. If a government study from last month is to be believed, 86 percent of all Chinese students return home after studying abroad.

Close

In short, China has somewhat been able to reverse the brain drain. It has also been able to position itself as a credible rival to western rivals when it comes to science and technology.

On the other hand, India continues to lose its brightest minds to opportunities abroad. The country has the largest share of the diaspora in the world with about 17 million people of Indian origin.

An investigation by The Indian Express last month revealed that more than half of India’s board exam toppers live and work abroad in top positions across academia, government, and corporations like Google. Most are in science and technology with a degree from India’s coveted IITs. As of 2018, more than 750,000 Indian students were studying abroad.

Our Loss, Their Gain

Some of them even go on to lead corporate America like Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, and Shantanu Narayen. In fact, the US economy has greatly benefited from immigrants who make up nearly a third of the workforce in industries such as technology.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, the labour force participation rate of foreign-born adults was 65.7 percent at about 27.2 million.

The Joe Biden administration, which understands the importance of having a talent friendly immigration policy, is gearing up to make it easier for graduates of US universities with degrees in STEM subjects to stay in the US. This will likely result in more and more Indian students going to the US and staying there. Brain drain again.

As we look into the future, with a growing startup ecosystem, and also an economy that is poised for recovery after COVID-19 pandemic, it is high time India took big steps to reverse the brain drain if we are to reap the benefits of the demographic dividend and give ourselves a golden decade ahead. A concentrated effort to woo and bring its brightest students back to the country is the need of the hour. Call it a thousand lotus programme if you need to, the syntax doesn’t matter but the results will.

Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world. 
Jayadevan PK is a former technology journalist and recovering startup founder. He now works with Freshworks Inc as an evangelist, focusing on efforts around brand building. He’s also a commissioned author at HarperCollins.
first published: Jan 27, 2021 03:58 pm

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