Academic Talents in Singapore: Coming, Going or Staying?

Published 1 December 2017 / By Lucie Cerna & Meng-Hsuan Chou

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Global talents can bring multiple benefits to the host country, such as more significant economic growth, productivity, competitiveness and innovation. That is why many countries have developed a variety of policies to attract and retain talent. However, less is known about the effects of policies to attract and retain ‘academic talents’, which refer to those foreign scientists and scholars working in the university sector outside their country of origin and, increasingly, outside the country of their Ph.D.

While academic mobility has become an essential component of university life, data remains generally sparse concerning how and why academics from diverse disciplines and nationalities decide to move across borders and take up positions outside their countries of origin and PhD. Similar to other sectors competing for talent, universities around the world, often with solid support and steering from governments, are competing for academic skills because they contribute to increasing the reputation of educational institutions and nations, greater productivity and research outputs, as well as the establishment of certain countries as ‘academic centres’ in the international higher education landscape.

Our new working paper addresses this gap between government strategies and policy effects by answering the question: Which factors (e.g. social, economic, academic networks, industry collaboration, and migration policy) are crucial for attracting and retaining international academic talents?

Taking the case of Singapore, our working paper studies talent migration policy effectiveness. The City State has been an increasing magnet for foreign academics and students due to its considerable rise in university rankings and diversity of nationalities given its cosmopolitan and English-speaking environment. We shed some light on which factors are essential for talent attraction and retention by surveying 707 tenure-track faculty in the three leading universities in Singapore (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University) across all disciplinary divides. In so doing, we identified whether universal factors—such as professional necessity—attracted them to Singapore and which other factors (related to family and personal fulfilment) are significant.

Why did academic talents come to Singapore? The survey participants revealed they did not come to Singapore primarily to settle down or join partners already here. They did not relocate to Singapore because the City State and the region (Asia or Southeast Asia) were their research areas. They also did not decide to move to Singapore because it was easier to obtain work permission. Instead, the following were the top motivating personal and professional factors the respondents cited for their move to Singapore: ‘able to communicate in English’ (both inside and outside of the work environment), ‘remuneration package’, ‘better access to research funding’, and ‘moving closer to parents’.

We also asked the survey respondents whether they intend to stay in Singapore. More than half of the respondents indicated they intend to stay in Singapore (‘yes’). In contrast, 10% of the respondents reported no intention to remain, and 28% stated they were unclear about their mobility aspirations. Similar to factors motivating foreign talents to move to another country, the factors affecting their decisions to remain once relocated include those about personal and professional dimensions of their lives. For our respondents, we found that the significant factors contributing to their future mobility decisions were both professional and personal, with satisfaction concerning ‘cost of living’ and ‘work-life balance’ being especially important in mobility decisions to leave Singapore.

So, what does the case of Singapore tell us about the drivers and dynamics of talent migration? At the most general level, the overall welcoming approach the government practises has enabled the rising universities in Singapore to attract academic talents from all over the world. At the aggregate individual level, we find that, however, both professional and personal factors matter in mobility decisions. While providing funding opportunities for fieldwork travel and laboratory research and having administrative infrastructures in place to support research and teaching are essential to attract high calibre academics from around the world, the rising cost of living (especially for those with children and ageing parents) and the overall work-life imbalance over time are likely to drive away these same people. What our findings ultimately tell us is that talent attraction and retention is a multi-level (involving national policy and university practice), multi-actor (policymakers, university administrators, academic talents), and multi-issue (professional and personal factors) undertaking. We can only begin to have a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of policies to attract and retain foreign talents by addressing these three distinct aspects together.