Science - September 9, 2004

Editorial: Brain gain or brain drain?

Agnes van Ardenne (minister of development cooperation) was shocked at the plan of secretary of state for education Rutte. He no longer intends to pay for students coming from outside the European Union. And indeed, why should the Dutch taxpayer finance the education of the Chinese elite? Surely foreign students should pay for their own education?

Van Ardenne came up with a good reason to pay: development cooperation. The Netherlands pays for the education of students from poor countries so that they in turn can help their countries to progress. During the opening of the academic year in Wageningen Van Ardenne gave a glimpse of the tug-of-war between education and development cooperation. It looks like Rutte won, going by the fact that Van Ardenne pledged to fill up the gap from her own budget.

She did not elaborate on how she intends distribute her budget, but it would seem likely that her ministry will hand out grants to students from developing countries; which will mean no support to rich Chinese students, but help for poor Africans. This strategy will only partially get rid of the ‘dark cloud’ for Wageningen, as Dijkhuizen referred to Rutte’s plan. The majority of international students in Wageningen do not come from the poor African countries, but from richer countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Brazil, and these are likely to have to pay higher tuition fees in future.

Nevertheless Van Ardenne’s announcement remains good news for Wageningen. Her positive words about Wageningen UR would lead one to imagine that a substantial amount of her education budget will make its way to this institution.

However, the question remains, whether this will bring her goal of educating academics for poor countries closer by. The discussions between the department of development cooperation and the ministry of education are not confined to financial issues. Rutte has also made it plain that he is after brain gain for the Netherlands. The new grants he intends to create are directed at attracting talented researchers to this country to strengthen the knowledge economy. In order to discourage these graduates from leaving after their study they will be given the opportunity to work in the Netherlands after graduating. If they find a job within three months they will automatically get a residence permit. This is quite the opposite of what Van Ardenne envisages. She is concerned with the problem of the African brain drain, and wants to see ‘her’ graduates return home.

Despite this possible outcome, the department of development cooperation should be applauded for its efforts to keep Dutch universities accessible for students from poor countries. A grant offers students the opportunity for further development, and in the worst case they will not return to Africa, but go and earn money in Europe or the United States. And some of the dollars they earn there will surely find their way to family back home.

Korné Versluis

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