The Brain Drain from Iran to the United States

By Torbat, Akbar E. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Brain Drain from Iran to the United States


Torbat, Akbar E., The Middle East Journal


In this article, the underlying forces and the extent of brain drain from Iran to the United States are studied. The brain drain is measured by the migration rates of Iranian nationals to the US with tertiary education, including physicians and professors. The universities' admission policies and inclusion of Islamic subject matters in the academic curricula are reviewed to evaluate the quality of higher education. In addition, the possibility of reversing the brain drain and its impact on the economy are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Emigration of the highly educated elite from the developing countries to the developed countries is an important issue that deserves attention. The Middle East with its vast oil resources needs educated professionals to enhance economic development and modernize the region. Iran, one of the oldest countries in the region, has lost a good portion of its educated professionals in the past few decades. The extent of the "brain drain" from Iran is a major concern. It is a vital matter in the US-Iranian relations due to the fact that educated elite are the medium for transferring technology and know how. This article brings to the fore the issue of the brain drain from Iran that has not been examined recently.

Educated and skilled workers are the scarcest resources of any developing country. They comprise the core workforce for sustainable economic development programs. Their training is time-consuming and expensive. The departure of a large number of highly educated elite from Iran has definitely caused a disastrous social loss to the country. In Iran, the government subsidizes students' higher education expenses by means of no-interest loans, little or no tuition, free accommodation in dormitories, various financial aids, grants, and scholarships for studying abroad. Even if education and training in Iran were privately financed, still there would have been significant national loss caused by the brain drain, due to the fact that education is a public good, and it has positive external benefits to the society. Educated people not only increase their own productivity but also contribute to the society's well being and knowledge; examples are the physicians and educators. The developed countries and especially the US have greatly benefited from the pool of the highly educated and experienced Iranian immigrants. These countries are getting a "free ride" from the education and expertise of the Iranian elite. Most of the Iranian immigrants in the US are working in fields such as education, engineering, medicine, and other professional services. Their work has important external social benefits for the host countries that are missed in Iran.

Carrington and Detragiache have done a comparative study of brain drain from developing countries to the United States and the other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.' They show that brain drain from Iran to the US, measured by migration rates of the individuals with tertiary education, is the highest in Asia. After Iran, sizable brain drains to the US are from Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, while the brain drain from other Middle Eastern countries is low. The subject of international migration of manpower from the Middle East has been under scrutiny since the 1960s. George B. Baldwin has studied this problem for the case of Iran. He examined whether the high-level brain drain was an obstacle to Iran's economic development? He found that brain drain from Iran was not a serious problem at the time and some foreign educated Iranians could be repatriated home by the efforts of public institutions. Askari and Cummings also have studied the brain drain from Iran and several other Middle Eastern countries to the United States.3 They point out that, given the need for high-level manpower in these countries, it is essential to adopt policies to reverse the brain drain. They suggest economic incentive policies for encouraging expatiates to return. …

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