Study abroad – stay abroad?

A recent post from Kyrgyz blogger Begimai Sataeva, Kyrgyzstan’s Migration Tragedy [en] on New Eurasia, points to the loss of highly trained and skilled workers as a ‘real tragedy’ for the country.

It is certainly the case that many people who migrate for educational purposes do not return to their home country, although my 2011 study of educational migration from Tajikistan showed that at least a third of those who had completed their courses returned home (this may be as high as 50% but not all respondents noted their current location). I’d suggest that Sataeva may have been a little quick to conclude that once abroad, migrants stay put and don’t return. This is in line with Philip Altbach’s view that ‘while brains may no longer be permanently drained, they are nonetheless siphoned’. Altbach, who is an international education specialist, looks more to the notion of brain exchange, which I have to say I rather like as a metaphor.

The article suggests that security, or lack thereof, is a major driver for migration. I think this analysis overlooks a number of other factors that push people abroad or pull them towards a different country. Here are some factors that came out strongly in my study:

Push factors

  • Availability of subjects not offered in Tajikistan
  • Desire to remain overseas temporarily/permanently
  • Corruption in Tajik higher education system

Pull factors

  • Desire to improve academic knowledge
  • Desire to improve career prospects
  • ‘Vertical mobility’ i.e. the desire to improve one’s academic knowledge and one’s career prospects (see De Wit et al, 2008)

Whilst Sataeva’s study does not focus exclusively on educational migration, an interpretation of a fuller range of factors leading to migration would have given her piece a broader and deeper perspective.

It was interesting to learn that the Ministry of Migration, Labour, and Employment provides a range of support for migrants, including connecting them in with fellow Kyrgyz nationals abroad. That seems to me a very sensible strategy, and one that former President Roza Otumbayeva is also employing to support the development of Kyrgyzstan (as noted in the article). From a comparative perspective, this is quite different to the experience that most Tajik migrants will have. In Tajikistan, government support is rather implicit and much more focussed on the financial gain that outbound migrants can send back in the form of remittances. There is little, if any, focus on cashing in on the intellectual and social benefits migrants may be able to offer to their home country.

Whilst the Kyrgyz experience may be rather bruising for the country if, as Sataeva contends, most migrants stay abroad, at least the government is taking steps to utilise the expertise and knowledge of this group. This is surely a more positive way to view migration that encourages Kyrgyz nationals to support the country even if they aren’t physically there.  Do read Sataeva’s article, and I’d be interested to know what you think of it.


Altbach, P. G. (26.02.2012). The complexities of 21st century brain ‘exchange’. University World News.

De Wit, H., Agarwal, P., Elmahdy Said, M., Sehoole, M. T., & Sirozi, M. (Eds.). (2008). The dynamics of international student circulation in a global context. Rotterdam: Sense.

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