Top students turning backs on NZ

DR PETER GLUCKMAN: Chief scientific adviser to Prime Minister John Key.
DR PETER GLUCKMAN: Chief scientific adviser to Prime Minister John Key.

The brain drain may be sucking another bunch of bright Kiwis down the overseas plughole - high school graduates who leave to study for degrees offshore.

Prime Minister John Key’s science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman says higher numbers of what he calls ''scholarship kids'' are passing over New Zealand universities to study abroad.

''They’re very talented kids from top schools and the world’s their oyster. There’s a number of them going to do their undergraduate degree offshore,'' Gluckman said.

''The probability of them returning is very low.''

National made an election promise to stem the brain drain across the Tasman, but last year a poll showed one in eight Kiwis was still considering quitting the country, while figures released in November showed 49,500 people left for Australia last year, with just 14,500 coming the other way.

That came after a September study showed around a third of PhD graduates had left to work overseas.

In the past two general elections, National campaigned on its ability to keep Kiwis here. Its billboards read ''wave goodbye to higher taxes not your loved ones'', and promised a plan for higher wages and lower taxes.

Gluckman, who plans to research whether the problem of undergraduates heading overseas is happening en masse, said it was likely the students left because they didn’t think New Zealand universities were good enough.

''The sad thing is that our universities are as good. It’s crazy to leave New Zealand at this time.''

He said New Zealand universities needed to get their rankings up to help convince students they weren’t missing out.

''We need to make it so they can see a future here. They don’t have to be in Silicon Valley or Boston.''

Figures show that over the past few years, New Zealand universities have lost ground against their international rivals.

Last year, Otago was the only New Zealand university to improve its standings in the annual QS World University rankings, with Auckland, Canterbury and Victoria all slipping down the scale. 

The results were blamed on the low level of investment in the tertiary sector.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said undergrad students,  to an extent, had a history of heading overseas.

While he had a suspicion that  numbers would continue to grow, it wasn’t a concern.

''We live in a global world. You can’t say you want to stop the world and get off. We want to keep encouraging opportunities for young people.''

Joyce said the election promise had not been about stopping the brain drain, but increasing the success of the New Zealand economy so more people felt they could be successful here.

''It doesn’t apply to undergraduates, it applies to people earning high incomes in New Zealand,'' he said.

But that had been challenging given the financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes.

More work would be done on universities, but Joyce said it it was important to look at the trend of undergraduates going overseas as a benefit to New Zealand, because it was likely more students from other countries would also come here.

Sunday Star Times