International Students—They Come to Study but Do They Stay?

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Moscow State University’s main building

Russia wants its future scientists, teachers, engineers, and medical personnel to attend the world’s top graduate schools. In fact, reports the Russian-language Begin, they want it so much that the government is offering to subsidize the cost. The program, recently signed into effect by President Vladimir Putin, aims to send out about 1,000 students a year, each with an average yearly grant of 1.5 million rubles (about US$44,000).

But there’s a catch. The students must return and work in Russia for three years, or they will have to pay back the grant plus a 200% fine.

This is just one salvo in the battle for bright young minds that’s going on around the globe. Sending countries, like Russia, are worried about “brain drain,” so they want their citizens to come back with their new-found knowledge and training. And their worries aren’t unfounded, as host countries are striving to increase “stay rates,” wanting the visiting students to make themselves at home and stick around for good.

No Need to Rush Off

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made up of 34 countries, the average stay rate for international students is 25%. Here, “staying” is defined as foreign nationals’ changing their visa status to something other than “student,” as opposed to not renewing their student permits and leaving.

Using data from 2008 and 2009, OECD further reports that in most member countries, over 20% of visiting students remain in their host countries. In Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, and France, the stay rate is over 30%.

In the US, an OECD-member country, the rates among those receiving doctorates in science and technology is much higher. Michael Finn, of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, writes that in 2007, the one-year stay rate (counting 2006 graduates) for those in this group was 73%. The two-year stay rate was 67%; the five-year rate was 62%; and the 10-year rate was 60%. Finn’s study shows that the five sending countries with the highest five-year stay rates were China, India, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Ukraine.

Why are countries striving to increase their stay rates? One reason is economics. The ICEF Monitor reports on a study from the Netherlands showing that if 20% of their international student population (more than 58,000, compared to 819,000 in the US) stays, it would help the economy by about €740 million (approximately US$1 billion). But the immigration of foreign graduates also helps in “the development of competitive knowledge economies.” This is especially important in developed countries, which have mismatches of jobs and skills and where low birth rates are producing aging populations.

Brain Drain vs Brain Gain

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Harvard’s Memorial Hall

As the competition to attract and keep the world’s scholars heats up, countries around the globe are loosening immigration restrictions to allow more international students to stay after graduation. This is especially true for graduates in the highly prized STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The US is no exception, with plans to attract foreign-born STEM graduates as a significant factor in several current immigration-reform proposals. For instance, President Barack Obama’s plan calls for giving a green card to PhD and master’s degree graduates in STEM fields who find work in the US. He calls it “stapling” green cards to their diplomas. In January of last year, the president described the goal this way:

If you’re a foreign student who wants to pursue a career in science or technology, or a foreign entrepreneur who wants to start a business with the backing of American investors, we should help you do that here. Because if you succeed, you’ll create American businesses and American jobs. You’ll help us grow our economy. You’ll help us strengthen our middle class.

Sounds like one more thing for Putin and Obama to spar over.

(Sergey Titov and Gregory Milov, [Google translation of Russian article] “The State Is Ready to Pay for Training Russians in Foreign Universities,” Begin, January 14, 2014; “How Is International Student Mobility Shaping Up,” Education Indicators in Focus, OECD, July, 2013; Michael G. Finn, “Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2007,” Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, January 2010; “Increasing the ‘Stay Rate’ of International Students,” ICEF Monitor, May 30, 2013; “Creating an Immigration System for the 21st Century,” The White House)

[photos: “Moscow State University,” by Steve Jurvetson, used under a Creative Commons license; “Harvard University – Memorial Hall,” by Chen Yen Lai, used under a Creative Commons license]

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