Issue 2, 2014. April-May


BRAIN DRAIN: BRINGING BACK THE BEST continues its series on brain drain in Georgia through interviews with Georgians studying or working abroad and the organizations that are trying to create the means to bring them back home. In this issue, interviewed the program manager of Open Society Foundations' Academic Fellowship Program, Eniko Kovacs.

How does the Open Society Foundation Academy Fellowship Program help predict brain drain? How big of a problem is brain drain in transitional countries like Georgia?

The main mission of the Open Society Foundations' Academic Fellowship Program is to prevent brain drain from academia by supporting the return and retention of young and promising academics (Returning Scholars) who have earned a graduate degree abroad and are eager or willing to return to teach in their home countries. Besides providing a scholarship to the individual, the program also acknowledges the importance of continuous professional development and the need for a broader assistance on curriculum reform to the academic departments of the returnees. These are addressed through different types of support. The Academic Fellowship Program'sProfessional Development Fund ensures that fellows can participate and network in high caliber international events or can effectively enhance their professional profile. The Academic Fellowship Program's International Scholars Fellowship Program invites high-profile academics from renowned universities around the world to provide direct assistance to departments and their entire faculty where Returning Scholars are placed.

It is well known that in developing countries well trained academics tend to leave for what are considered developed countries. However, this is not the only danger to consider since the brain drain from academia to other sectors in the labor market is also a real danger. There is a need for good education first in order to build up good and successful economies. Our program targeted return and retention in academia and through this the enhancement of the quality of education provided by the partner departments/ universities. Such a scheme offers assistance for individuals but also takes into account the need to boost the milieu where the individual is placed. This proved to be effective in countries where the Academic Fellowship Program operated as this addressed return but also retention at the same time. Throughout the years in Georgia we supported almost 100 returning scholars for several years and were happy to learn that most of our alumni are still in the country and still teaching. The support for the Returning Scholars also meant direct support to several departments at Tbilisi State University, Ilia State University and the Georgian Medical University and also led to the creation of new academic centers and departments.

What are the benefits of studying abroad? To what extent are those benefits recognized by employers in countries like Georgia?

Being a student at a university in a different country, especially in Western Europe or the U.S., brings important benefits when it comes to looking for a job. Undertaking your MA or PhD program abroad means not only new competitive knowledge and skills but also becoming a better expert within your field. The improvement of one's professional and language skills brings many benefits when it comes to engaging in the labor market. Such well-qualified professionals should be highly valued by employers in all countries, including Georgia. This is a benefit for the employer as it gets an excellent labor force. On the other hand, it might be a loss to academia in someone's home country, which can seem a less attractive sector for many to work in.

What should local employers/business associations/policy makers do to encourage students to go back and use their new skills at home?

First of all, it is worth emphasizing that in Georgia, as in many other countries, local employers may lack a clear vision regarding the skills and potential of Georgians outside Georgia. The main recruitment market remains the narrow pool of professionals who live and study in Georgia. A well-structured strategy is needed by businesses and employers concerning what human capital needs there are and how the skills of Georgians that live/study abroad could be utilized to meet those needs. In the ideal scenario the strategy should also involve a way to keep track of scholars who go abroad and to start career counseling and to inform them about opportunities at home at an early stage, for example, one year before they finish their degrees.

As for incentives, it is clear that besides the financial motivation there is a need to offer opportunities for further professional development. This is also true for academia since a university that doesn't offer space or time (because of an extremely high teaching load) for academics for academic research and other professional development would not be perceived as a welcoming environment. In order to change this there is a need for real collaboration and consensus of both policy makers and employers.

How successful has Georgia been at bringing its expats back home?

There have been some steps taken in order to prevent the brain drain from the country and at the same time to support studies and professional development abroad. This is a very sensitive issue as the Georgian education system is still in the process of transformation, and therefore it may not yet be able to provide Georgian youth with adequate skills and knowledge.

A presidential fund was developed to finance those young people who have excelled and succeeding in getting enrolled in the world's leading universities. However, the condition was that they had to come back after their studies and be employed in state structures for a minimum of two years. On one hand this was a very reasonable condition, but on the other hand there turned out to be a mismatch between supply and demand since senior positions are very limited in state structures and the state literally didn't have space to offer interesting positions to all returning people. As a result, some of those who returned, who were graduates of prestigious universities, were offered weak positions in state structures. Obviously, this caused dissatisfaction for these people and many of them tried to find different ways to avoid that obligation.

According to our information, the business sector doesn't have a systematic contribution to bringing expats home either. Businesses mainly do charity or one-time activities. However, there are a few good examples of business involvement in education. For example, we were recently informed that the Bank of Georgia has established a sub-unit for dealing with the non-commercial/social-responsibility initiatives. They have developed their strategy and are working on fundraising in other institutions. For the first time in Georgia a local business establishment became a co-sponsor of the Chevening Scholarship, giving money to distinguished students to continue graduate studies at one of UK's leading universities.

Offering special schemes to make people return, especially to academia, does not happen systematically. The main reason, in my opinion, is that education usually is not the number one priority of a state and neither is it a priority for businesses. At this stage, advocacy initiatives are needed to raise awareness among businesses on the need and the possible benefits of their more intense involvement in education sector's development.

Why is that important for the economy?

Brain drain in academia could be a real danger. Having knowledgeable, highly skilled academics teaching at universities is indispensable for shaping the future generation's critical thinkers and reformers.

This is indespensable for any country's economy. And it should not be forgotten that academics returning from different international universities may also be a leading force of a countinous educational (but not only) reform in a country. Through their international experience and networks, they can be an asset for much more than a country's education sector.