Mobile academics – brain drain or circulation?


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.

This content was published on February 17, 2014 minutes
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich,

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.

Adrian Ritter/University of Zurich

Life lessons

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

The soft skills he learned in Switzerland - quality of work, integrity in research, good governance - have been invaluable for his career.

Swiss experience

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

“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.

Mutual benefits

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.

Government scholarships

The Swiss government, through the Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students, awards scholarships for postgraduate study at universities and in the arts (a smaller number).

By law, 50% of grants are given to developing countries and 50% to industrialised countries (partners in academia such as the European Union, the United States and other Anglo-Saxon countries).

For the academic year 2013/4, 368 scholarships awarded. Applications are currently being received for 2014/5, with around 1,000 coming in so far.

Priority countries as set out by the Swiss government: BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) plus Ivory Coast and Tanzania, where the State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation funds two research institutes. 10-25 grants are given within this framework, depending on the quality of the applications.

The budget for 2013/4 was CHF9.1 million ($10.1 million).

It is too early to say whether the February 9 vote to curb immigration to Switzerland will have an effect on federal scholarships for foreign students.

(Source: State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation)

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The study in detail

The results of the “Brain drain or brain circulation” study were presented in Zurich on January 22. It covered 304 people who had studied between 1996-2012 for a Masters, Doctorate or post-doc at the University of Zurich or the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, from 57 countries such as China, India, Mongolia, Russia and Cuba.

It covered Swiss government scholarships, as well as ones offered by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development and the universities themselves.

95% of respondents said their Switzerland stay had been useful for them. Almost 60% of respondents were employed in research or higher education, 20% worked in the private sector. Those back in their home countries were generally further up the employment ladder than those who had stayed overseas.

At the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, 36% of students and 65% of doctoral students are foreigners. For the University of Zurich, 18% of students including PhDs and more than 35% of PhD students are foreign. Swisswide the number of overseas students is 38% (2011).

According to a recent international study (Franzoni et al., 2012), Switzerland is currently the country with the highest percentage of immigrant scientists worldwide at 56.7% (the research noted an influx from Germany). It compared to a low of less than 0.8% for India. The rate for the United States in this study is 38.4%.

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