The Bahamian brain drain
“An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.” — Tara Westover
Bahamians from all walks of life, all religions, various social backgrounds, and geographical orientations have come to fully appreciate the indispensable value of a good education.
It has become a normal expectation that a high school education is just the beginning of a well-rounded, educated citizen, a beginning that must be augmented by a college or university education. Therefore, we have increasingly sought to continue our children’s education beyond high school.
At the same time, we have witnessed increased household expenditures for educational advancement both here at home at the University of The Bahamas (UB) and abroad. We have also seen The Bahamas government’s continued commitment to funding the education of Bahamians through decades of scholarships, grants and loans.
One of the enduring and prominent facts about tertiary education is that many Bahamian families still take enormous pride in ensuring that family members are afforded an opportunity to go to college or university.
There is an increasing reality, however, that a rapidly growing number of our Bahamian students are less inclined to return to The Bahamas after obtaining an education abroad.
Therefore, this week, we would like to consider this — is The Bahamas facing a brain drain and, if so, what are the implications for national development?
The historical reality
In the absence of supportive empirical data, we believe that it is safe to say that, by and large, in the latter part of the 20th Century, most Bahamians who obtained a university, college, post-graduate or professional education abroad looked forward, often with great anticipation, to returning to The Bahamas. In fact, it was unfathomable for many to consider doing otherwise.
There was a very real sense that an education abroad was an inescapably indispensable stepping stone to advancement in our society.
This was especially true before the establishment of the college (COB), which has become UB.
Many of the courses that are now obtainable at that institution were unavailable then, and one had to go abroad to acquire an education in one’s chosen career. With the establishment of COB, now UB, the need to go abroad decreased, although many still preferred to study away from home.
The new normal in education abroad
One of the benefits of an upwardly mobile society is the ability for more of our citizens to study abroad. And the stark reality is that there is an ever-increasing number of Bahamians who are doing so.
Considering the numerous career choices that are now available, Bahamians have embarked upon careers that heretofore were non-existent, many of which do not readily offer them a career path that they can pursue here at home.
There are, for example, Bahamians who have studied what can be characterized as “exotic” careers in research and development in areas such as biochemistry, physics, aeronautical engineering, econometrics, data analytics, marine biology and atomic energy, to name a few.
We fully appreciate that some Bahamians will be inclined to pursue careers abroad that are non-existent here at home. However, increasingly, the new normal is that Bahamians are opting to follow more conventional career paths abroad that can be pursued here. So why are they not returning to The Bahamas after studying abroad?
The choice to remain abroad
There are many reasons why Bahamians are opting to remain abroad. We will discuss several, but this is not intended to provide a comprehensive list for this behavior.
First: As we stated earlier, the course of study of some Bahamians does not offer them career opportunities in The Bahamas. Accordingly, they stay in the country in which they study or in another foreign country where they can more effectively use their training.
Second: Many Bahamians are encouraged by their parents, siblings and colleagues not to return to The Bahamas. They are advised that there are greater career opportunities abroad, both in terms of upward mobility in their careers and exponentially enhanced compensation.
Recently, a Bahamian graduate from a foreign university applied for a job at a local public corporation.
During the job interview with that graduate, the human resources manager asked the applicant, “Why would you want to return to The Bahamas to work? Aren’t you aware that you could make a lot more money in your area if you obtained a job abroad?”
This scenario is often repeated, sometimes resulting in Bahamians deciding to get a job abroad, as was the case with that graduate.
Third: Some Bahamians seek employment abroad to strengthen their resume by obtaining greater experience, with every intention of returning to The Bahamas after getting the relevant experience to assist them in their professional development.
All too often, greater opportunities present themselves for advancement abroad, including greater compensation and, in their opinion, a better, more fulfilling lifestyle and standard of living.
The years pass, and, before one realizes it, they are fully ensconced in their “new home”, eventually concluding that it is not “better in The Bahamas”, and they remain abroad.
Fourth: Legitimate, wholesome and meaningful relationships are formed with foreign spouses, which also militate against their returning to The Bahamas. The decision to return to The Bahamas is then taken in the context of what is best for their new family, and they ultimately decide that it is better to remain abroad.
Fifth: There is a genuine frustration that some graduates experience, specifically those who fully intend and want to return to The Bahamas.
However, the frustration levels that they encounter in obtaining meaningful employment here thwart their plans to do so. The old Bahamian adage that “it’s not what you know, but who you know” prevails, and, if some graduates are not well-connected, they are not afforded opportunities to obtain meaningful employment.
In addition, colleagues in the local workplace do not take kindly to being unfavorably compared to new graduates who attempt to demonstrate a work ethic that is contrary to the lackadaisical corporate culture that has developed within the organization in which they are employed.
Consequently, these colleagues frequently frustrate the new graduates to the point that they leave the company or the government corporation rather than change their work ethic.
Sixth: Some persons make the conscious decision that a better life can be experienced abroad. Some are attracted to the amenities that exist abroad that they are unable to find or enjoy at home. Therefore, they consciously decide to make their adopted home their permanent place of residence, even changing their citizenship.
The Bahamian brain drain
Whatever the reason for educated Bahamians to choose to remain abroad, the reality is that their decision to do so contributes to a real brain drain. This has significant long-term implications for our country.
The imperatives of national development demand that we should create in the 21st Century Bahamas an atmosphere for as many Bahamians who are educated abroad to return to make a positive contribution and develop meaningful careers.
Otherwise we would find ourselves eventually devoid of a majority of this young, talented, well-educated and professional generation of Bahamians and having to continue to rely on older, less knowledgeable individuals to steer the nation.
We must consciously encourage our best and brightest minds to return to the country of their birth after obtaining an education abroad.
We must continuously create a welcoming social and professional environment that removes the barriers to re-entry. Failure to do so would result in a continuous brain drain that would prevent our country from realizing its full potential for present and future generations of Bahamians.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.