Scholarships for international students from less well-off nations allow Switzerland to attract some of the best minds to its universities. Some of these scholars never go back home. A “brain drain”? A Zurich study aims to give some answers.
When Meghali Randive arrived at the University of Zurich from India to take up her scholarship for German studies in 2008, she had a bit of a culture shock. “I did not realise how different Swiss German was to the High German I had learned in India,” she recalled.
Six years on, and working towards a PhD, she has integrated well and is not necessarily intending to go back home.
Togo veterinarian Bassirou Bonfoh, who came over to Basel and Zurich for post-doctoral study, is now back in West Africa. The director general of the Swiss Centre for Scientific Research in the Ivory Coast, he is known as “the Swiss” due to his Helvetic approach to problem solving.
A joint study by the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the University of Zurich -presented in January and the first of its kind in Switzerland - looked into the impact of five types of university scholarships, including federal government ones, on the career paths of international students.
Researchers found both Randive and Bonfoh’s cases to be fairly typical. Of the 304 people surveyed from developing and transition countries, only around half of the grant students had returned home after their studies at the two institutions.
This is rather low figure compared with similar international studies and, coupled with the fact that that those living abroad were concentrated in industrialised countries, would suggest a brain drain of talents from less well-off countries.
But 53% of those abroad were found to maintain professional contacts with their country of origin.
“A physical presence is not necessary in order to exchange ideas and knowledge,” said the federal institute’s Emma Lindberg, lead author of the study.
Scholarship recipients from less developed countries were the most likely to return home. Reasons given for going back included friends and family ties, a higher status and better career chances than in wealthier countries. Or simply wanting to make a difference.
In addition, most grant students were of a “globalised generation” and “educationally mobile”, living in several places both before and after their stay in Switzerland. So it was often not a case of whether to study abroad but where, the study argued.
Competition for the best scholars is in any case hotting up with emerging countries such as China and India also entering the academic talent game, it was noted.
Bassirou Bonfoh (holding the microphone) spoke at the forum to present the study
(Adrian Ritter/University of Zurich)
Randive, whose husband works for a German company in India, hopes to settle abroad, possibly in Germany. She is currently doing her PhD without the aid of a scholarship, so has been supporting herself through teaching, reception and kitchen jobs.
“I have overcome the inhibition that girls don’t do certain jobs. I can proudly say that I can do anything and have survived, that’s the most important thing I have learned here and it’s going to help me for the rest of my life,” she said.
Bonfoh, now a professor, also appreciated his Swiss scholarship experience. “It has helped me to jump the steps in the responsibility more than I expected when I graduated from Senegal University,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The soft skills he learned in Switzerland - quality of work, integrity in research, good governance - have been invaluable for his career.
The Swiss: Bassirou Bonfoh on how he got his nickname
The Zurich study results roughly tallies with the overall Swiss experience, said Jacques Moeschler, head of the Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students, through which the government awards its grants. (see infobox)
“Our statistics show that in the first six months after their scholarship a third of scholars go back to their country, a third is staying in Switzerland to improve their education and a third is going abroad for a career or further education,” Moeschler told swissinfo.ch.
“So there is a circulation not a drain. I cannot say that these students will definitely make an academic career in Switzerland though,” he said.
In any case, the commission does not have as many resources as Germany or the American Fulbright scholarships, which are very much based on academic excellence, explained Moeschler.
Switzerland is also moving in this academic direction, with more scholarships for PhDs and post-docs, but the cabinet still requires “some geographical or political criteria” in their allocation, added the Geneva University professor.
In all, 368 government scholarships were awarded in Switzerland in 2013/4, according to the State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation.
At the conference to present the study, participants from various academic circles argued that more should be done to encourage foreign students to put their knowledge to good use back in their home countries, such as by supporting their reintegration into their home academic institutions.
Some pointed out that Swiss migration restrictions could also be eased to allow students to stay if they wish.
In any case, scholarships are good for Switzerland as well, said University of Zurich senior researcher and study author Susan Thieme. “Supervisors, professors and senior researchers benefit so much if they have this internationalised classroom and if people bring different knowledge and experiences.”
For Bonfoh, it is all about mutual learning. “When the Swiss fund scholarships, they also gain something: we are afterwards the ambassadors of the Swiss,” he said.