Should Developing Countries Send Their Best Students Abroad?

By Elizabeth Melampy

Iraq’s Higher Committee for Education Development (HCED), established in 2009, provides scholarships for promising students to study at foreign universities, mainly in the US. In 2015 alone, HCED has a budget of $125 million. This program is a long-term investment in improving Iraq’s public sector efficiency and stability; educating the brightest students abroad in the best universities, where they can benefit from new perspectives and better education, will pay off when the students return to Iraq’s public sector. Thus, ensuring that students return home and enter public service is key to the success of this investment. Convincing these students to return home, however, can prove challenging when employment prospects in Iraq seem limited.

There are many critiques of this type of program, especially in a fragile, post-conflict context like Iraq, where $125 million could certainly help fix more immediate domestic issues. For example, critics argue that the health sector in Iraq is in a dire need of money, and rerouting the HCED budget to the health sector could save lives. Why, then, is Iraq investing in this education program?

Road sign to  education and future

Many countries are investing in sending students abroad as a means of securing their national future.

Iraq is not alone in sending its best students to foreign universities.  Many developing countries have similar programs to educate students abroad with the expectation that they will return to work in the public sector. Countless world leaders have been educated in the U.S., and this trend of sending students abroad to developed countries to study is only growing.

Iraq presents an example of a country-led scholarship program, but there are other models of funding educational exchange.  LAPSAU, for example, is a program based at Harvard University that funds students from Latin America. The universities benefit from having foreign students, of course; they gain more diverse classrooms and alumni bragging rights if the students do become important political figures. At first glance, educating foreign students in developed countries with the intent of funneling them back into their own public sector seems like a great investment.

These educational investments are only successful if the students return to public service in their home country, and unfortunately there are many reasons why a student might not return.  There are often more lucrative job opportunities abroad, and more possible job mobility, offering attractive alternatives to low-paying public sector work. These students spend years in developed societies, and returning to a developing nation carries its own personal struggles.

How, then, can students be convinced to return home after graduation?  Many programs function like COLFUTURO, which sends 1600 Colombian students abroad every year. COLFUTURO operates as a loan/scholarship; if a student returns to Colombia, 50 percent of their loan is forgiven, and if they work in the public sector, 60 percent is forgiven.  Students can also stay abroad if they pay back 100 percent of their loan, which, while daunting, is often possible.  Even this program, though, might not do enough to incentivize work in the public sector.

The nature of public sector work is a huge barrier to students entering that field.  Students don’t want to return home to serve in a low paying job at an inefficient or corrupt government institution, as is often the case.  Improving the job quality and compensation for public sector work would help ensure higher rates of return, making investments in education a more worthwhile endeavor. Singapore, for example, incentivizes public sector work well—government jobs are both well-paying and prestigious. Today 17 of 22 permanent secretaries in Singapore’s government were trained through a government scholarship program. Following a similar model would benefit many developing countries engaged in this type of foreign education investment.

Iraq is not wasting its money by investing in education for the future of its public sector, but it does need to make sure that its public sector is attractive enough for their educated students to return and work. Iraq needs more than a contract and loose commitment to ensure that students return to support the “rebuilding of [their] beloved country.” By thinking ahead and considering what type of work environment would be fruitful for the next generation of public workers, Iraq and other developing countries can make their investments in human capital worthwhile.

Elizabeth Melampy is a researcher with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development.

Photo: By Tcodl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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