Global competition for brains and talent.

Author:Abella, Manolo
Position:The Flow of Human Capital - Statistical data

Recent years have seen the emergence of an international market for higher education. It is likely that the number of international students worldwide may have reached 5.2 million in 2014, with these students responsible for expenditures for tuition, accommodation, and other living expenses of no less than $50 billion. Since 1970, the number of international students is estimated to have doubled every fifteen years, on average, and the pace may be accelerating because of the expanding pool of tertiary education graduates in emerging economies where more education suppliers are entering the market. (1) Experts predict that there will be at least 8 million international students by 2025, a larger group than the total population of Switzerland, Norway, or Ireland. (2) This article traces the growth of student migration to the Cold War period when it was driven largely by the competition between the Soviet bloc and the West for influence in the developing world, how it has since been transformed (and now is being driven mainly by competition for dominance in technological innovation and trade), and concludes with questions on what it means for the less-developed countries of origin.



There is a consensus that bright, young foreigners seeking higher education should be welcomed. Almost every Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member state has adopted student-friendly immigration policies, from shortening the time it takes to process student visa applications to allowing longer employment after receiving degrees. (3)

New countries are entering the education market, including Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and India. At the 169th Session of the Japanese Diet in 2008, then-prime minister Yasuo Fukuda announced a "Plan for 300,000 Exchange Students," a program intended to make Japan more open to the world. (4) In the field of education, China is another

major education supplier. According to scholar Ronald Skeldon, there were already 238,000 foreign students in China in 2009, more than the corresponding figures in Australia or Canada. (5)

Europe attracts the highest number of foreign students, some 2.16 million in 2012, of which intra-European Union (EU) movements account for about 40 percent. (6) However, among individual countries, the United States is the largest destination, hosting some 819,000 international students in 2012. The other country in North America, Canada, hosts some 143,000 students.

The Chinese are the biggest contingent of new students enrolling in foreign schools and universities, from nearby Japan to far off England. (7) Accounting for 19.8 percent of all international students worldwide, the Chinese comprise the largest group enrolling in American, British, Japanese, and Korean universities in recent years. In Germany, they account for a bigger proportion of students than any of Germany's neighbors, and were only slightly less in number than the Turks. Asian students accounted for almost half of all international students in the OECD countries, while European students accounted for another 28 percent. (8)

The pool of potential international students has greatly expanded, thanks to the rising incomes and the growth of tertiary education systems in developing countries. In China, the central government adopted a "Great Leap Forward" policy in tertiary education in 1999; as a consequence, today no less than 33 million youth are enrolled in higher education institutions compared to a mere 7.4 million in 2000.9 In India, between 1990 and 2006, the number of institutions of higher learning tripled from 6,000 to 18,000, and enrollments more than doubled from 4.5 to 10.5 million. Indeed, between 1990 and 2006, the number of Indians who went abroad to study more than doubled. (10) Many who go abroad for study do so in pursuit of more advanced degrees after getting their first degrees at home. The growth of international education is thus positively related to the growth of tertiary education enrollment in developing regions.


With a mere 2-percent share, the Russian Federation no longer features prominently in the global market for international education. However, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was a major player, hosting many thousands of foreign youths under student exchange programs. Under the banner of a new type of "internationalism," these programs were put in place soon after the communist government took power, but had to endure temporary suspension in the 1930s and 1940s because of World War II. This was because of the need to cement alliances with then-colonial powers Great Britain and France against Nazi Germany being assigned a higher priority over such student exchanges.

These exchange programs, however, resumed after the war and began to rapidly expand with the onset and deepening of the Cold War. In the post-1945 era, special institutions and programs were established to host foreign youth, especially those from satellite states and the developing world. International education was considered a major instrument of foreign policy--a powerful means of spreading communist ideology--especially at a time when the anti-colonial movements in many parts of Asia and Africa were becoming more vigorous. In 1921, the Soviets set up the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, a special kind of educational institution with students from forty-four countries. (11) Among its now famous students was Ho Chi Minh, who attended the university from 1923-1924, as well as many leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Accounts of the experience of scholars who participated in these programs speak of the ease with which citizens of targeted countries were granted support and not-so-subtle ideological indoctrination via instruction in every subject. (12)

As explained previously, the expansion of foreign student populations in the Soviet Union did not take place until after World War II, when the communist state began to win over allies. In 1960, the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee, the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, and the Union of Soviet Societies of Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries jointly established the People's University of Friendship of Peoples in Moscow, later to be renamed Patrice Fumumba University, in honor of the first democratically elected prime minister of the then-Republic of Congo. Scholarships were offered to students from Africa and Asia with stipends two to three times larger than those given to Soviet students. By the mid-1980s, Patrice Fumumba University had some 6,000 graduate and undergraduate students, with African students representing the largest contingent of foreigners. Moreover, around 700 scholarships were awarded each year. Attraction to the Soviet Union was boosted further by the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957, which came to symbolize Russian technological achievements and superiority over the West.

The number of foreign students in the Soviet Union rose from a mere 5,900 in 1950 to 126,500 in 1990. (13) Most came from countries of the socialist camp and were enrolled in over 700 educational institutions and scientific research institutions all over the country. Prominent among them were the Moscow State University, St. Petersburg State Technical University, the Russian University of Friendship of Peoples, the Moscow State Highway Institute, and Voronezh State University. (14) Foreign students were dispersed throughout 120 cities and population centers of the Soviet Union, with 23,500 in Moscow, 16,500 in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), 8,000 in Kiev, 5,000 in Kharkov, and 4,000 in Minsk. (15)

Student exchange programs were covered by agreements with many countries, especially those in Africa and Asia. Trade unions and the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (KOMSOMOL), the Soviet youth organization, played big roles in sponsoring participants and organizing their training. Many of the African students were cadres of political organizations campaigning for independence (e.g., the African Independence Party) and national liberation movements like the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), and the African National Congress (ANC). Among Asian students, Chinese students constituted the largest contingent. From 1948-1966, about 25,000 Chinese students were reported to have been trained in both institutions of higher learning and in secondary specialized schools, for the most part in the fields of engineering and technology. The student exchange program, formalized in 1952 by a long-term agreement between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union, came to a halt in 1966 as a consequence of these hitherto allies drifting apart, and it would not resume until 1984. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, at least 10,000 citizens of the PRC had graduated from Russian institutions of higher learning. (16) Under the student exchange treaties, the Soviet Union not only received foreign students but also established schools in friendly countries. It was reported that in the mid-1980s, some 5,000 Soviet instructors were sent abroad to teach in these schools.

The United States and its Western allies were equally active in the field of education to counter the growing communist influence in the developing world. Undoubtedly in part a consequence of the Cold War, the number of students studying abroad more than doubled from 110,000 in 1950 to 231,000 in 1960, and almost doubled again to 443,000 by 1970. As Baron noted, "... [B]efore and after World War II, the political concept of promoting academic mobility was...

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