The absconding academia

An alternative perspective on brain drain and reverse brain drain

The absconding academia

A recent newspaper report cited the Higher Education Commission’s  (HEC) figures of 177 M.Phil/Ph.D dropouts; 110 ‘absconders,’ in addition to 300-400 existing cases of absconders that are currently being litigated in courts.

Brain ‘drain’ is neither a new issue nor is it unique to the Pakistani context. Most of the countries from the Asian and African continents struggle to bring back graduates who study in the US or other Western countries.

According to David Zweig, associate dean of the School of Humanities & Social Sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, quoted in the New York Times "the return rate among Chinese who received Ph.Ds in the United States is shockingly low. Approximately 92 per cent of all Chinese who received a science or technology Ph.D in the US in 2002 were still in the US. This rate was well above India’s, which is in second place with 81 per cent."

Pakistan has been sending its best and brightest students abroad for graduate school studies for more than 20 years (in the 90s through the MoST, and since 2002 through the HEC).

However, today the stark contrast between the success of professional Pakistanis and Indians, particularly in the tech sector of Silicon Valley and American academia, is clear to both the Pakistani public and political class. Today everyone in Pakistan knows that the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Pepsi, MasterCard and Adobe Systems all have Indian roots, but virtually none are of Pakistani origin.

Twenty years is long enough for at least a handful of Pakistanis to rise to the ranks of CEOs. Part of the answer may lie simply in the difference in the size of India and Pakistan’s populations. A key difference between Pakistan’s and India’s scholarship programmes that send people abroad for graduate school studies is that Pakistani institutions like the HEC labels scholarship holders unwilling to return to Pakistan as "defaulters/absconders" and aggressively pursues legal means to recover the cost incurred on them, unlike India which has formalised uncomplicated student loan programmes for studies abroad or scholarships that have less stringent policies for scholarship holders to return.

The result has been that a majority of Indians indeed chose not to return but build their careers in the US. Today, it is that same generation of Indians that have climbed to, or at least near, the top of so many American companies. Meanwhile, their Pakistani counterparts are forced to return to Pakistan to spend the 5 most fruitful and critical years of their careers in Pakistan in a constant struggle to obtain even the most basic resources needed to continue any of their graduate school research work.

During one of his visits to the US, a couple of decades ago, the then prime minister of India Rajiv Gandhi responded to a question about ‘brain drain’ of Indians by saying that it was not a brain drain but a ‘brain bank’ for which "one could make withdrawals from time to time."

An Indian ambassador responded to a similar question in the US and said that it was not a brain drain, but rather ‘brain circulation’. "What goes around, comes around, and I have seen that movement of Indians to other countries has had a very positive impact back in India."

An even bigger challenge, than making scholars return, is the inability of the HEC/universities to maintain long-term retention of scholars who do decide to return. Among them are many high performing scholars who choose to return home despite opportunities offered in their country of study. However, once back their motivation to stay with the universities that hire them plummets, commonly during the first year.

Instead of lamenting the numbers of non-returning scholars, the HEC should adopt a longer-term outlook. This means realising the benefits of having a large thriving, highly skilled diaspora that will serve as initial hooks in organisations abroad and can be tapped when needed.

Transition back into the Pakistani university environment is just as, if not more, difficult for graduates who return home after higher education training in foreign institutes. There is a sharp contrast in academic and institutional cultures. Many graduates who return complain about departmental jealousies, especially, from older colleagues who try to maintain the status quo; lack of vision by university leadership; excessive administrative burden; and just the lack of overall environment one needs to thrive academically and professionally.

One recent returnee hired by a prestigious public sector university in Lahore confessed that office politics drove him to attempt suicide. Over the past few years, I have known several friends, top graduates from among the world’s best universities, who came back to Pakistan to serve out their contracts with the HEC or the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), and are now steadily leaving as their contract periods come to an end.

A few years ago, the HEC introduced the tenure track faculty hiring and promotion system as an alternative to the regular hiring scheme. Although introduced as an incentive for new faculty members, the tenure track policy has failed at what it purported to achieve for several reasons. First, tenure in the Pakistani university system does not mean the same thing as it does elsewhere in the world. If put succinctly, tenure in American academia, which is increasingly serving as the model for reforms, implies complete academic freedom and job security for life (unless one commits a crime). Because of the job security, faculties who get tenure at a reasonably good university rarely leave their positions.

Tenure in Pakistani academia neither offers the same job security nor the same level of academic freedom. The tenure track, as introduced by the HEC, only means being hired under the title of Assistant Professor, and from thereon promotion to Associate Professor and finally Full Professor, if one meets certain conditions.

The tenure stream offers relatively better salary structure, but is still quite low in absolute terms considering what graduates can make outside academia, with starting salaries ranging from approximately Rs106,000-135,000, determined at the discretion of the university.

In addition, research grant programmes, most critically those of the National ICT R&D Fund and the HEC, necessary to permit faculty to conduct research and publish to fulfill promotion criteria, often close down without notice and remain deadlocked, underfunded or otherwise non-operational for months and years on end. This is another disincentive for continuing in Pakistani universities.

To make matters worse, there is a dwindling number of grant programmes that fund pure research. Even the HEC’s most significant source of research grants, the National Research Program for Universities (NRPU) is undergoing overhaul and is reported to now require grants applicants to supplement their proposals with business plans. This moves both the National ICT R&D Fund and the HEC’s NRPU programme closer to becoming venture capitalist funds, while eliminating the last sources of grants for pure research.

The HEC ought to give successful scholarship holders the option to repay the investment the HEC made on their education on behalf of the government of Pakistan either by serving in Pakistan for a period of 5 years as they do right now, or to repay the cost incurred in installments over a reasonable period of time. While some scholarship holders avail themselves of the second option even now, the terms of the repayment are not clearly spelled out up front, and certain parameters of the repayment (repayment period, interest/penalty on top of the actual cost) are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. This latter option may have been politically unpalatable when the HEC was raised about 14 years ago, but with no Pakistani success stories of the same scale as the many prominent Indian success stories, this may be the time to make drastic changes to these programmes.

Scholarship schemes have now been in place for more than two decades. Instead of lamenting the numbers of non-returning scholars, the HEC officials should adopt a longer-term outlook. This means realising the benefits of having a large thriving, highly skilled, highly assimilated diaspora that will serve as initial hooks in organisations abroad and can be tapped when needed. At the same time, there is need for reform in Pakistani academia to stop the hemorrhaging of experience, institutional memory, and talent developed at great national cost.