Brain change: what it means to the US as Indian students overtake the Chinese in hi-tech talent pool

“Indian students are certainly filling the gap [left by Chinese students] and are pursuing graduate education leading to top positions in the tech industry and STEM-related jobs. This is not only happening in the US but in other countries as well,” Moja wrote in her reply to the Post.

It is a similar story across the pond. In Britain, the latest data, released in November last year, also showed that India had overtaken China as the main recipient of student visas for the first three quarters of 2022.


A key US-China science cooperation deal is about to end

A key US-China science cooperation deal is about to end

Students of Chinese origin have made significant contributions in many Western countries, especially the US. Boeing’s first aeronautical engineer Wong Tsu, for instance, was an MIT graduate born in Beijing.

But in recent years, due to anti-Chinese sentiment as well as increasingly higher paid jobs on offer in China, the US has lost its charm for students in top Chinese universities. It means that in the future, America will need to rely more and more on those students from India and other countries to maintain its leadership in areas of scientific research, defence technology and hi-tech industry.

How this change in the talent pool will affect America’s global competence remains unclear.

While there are similarities between students from India and China, such as work ethic, there are also differences. A popular view is that people from India are well-suited to leadership roles, while those from China are good at problem-solving. Though a few scientific studies appear to support the theory, many researchers have cautioned that the results should not be over-interpreted.

In a 2017 article published in the peer-reviewed journal Neuroscience Letters, a group of scientists, mainly from the Suzhou Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), examined ethnic differences in cerebral morphometry between Chinese and Indian undergraduate student volunteers.

A total of 36 Chinese and 32 Indian students at Soochow University in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, who were all within the same age range, had MRI scans done of their brains, looking at grey matter volume, cortical thickness and cortical surface area.

The purpose of the study was not to evaluate which group was smarter, according to the researchers. The mainstream scientific community has strongly opposed using brain scan as an IQ measurement. Brain structure varies from one person to another. It does not have any implication for racial or cultural superiority.

Researchers found that in 14 measurements, Chinese students scored differently from their Indian counterparts, such as grey matter volume in the left superior frontal gyrus which is related to working memory.

Teboho Moja, a professor of higher education at New York University, says Indian students are filling the gap left by the falling numbers of Chinese students studying in the US. Photo: New York University

The results also showed the Indian students were higher in three measurements, including grey matter volume in the right orbito-frontal cortex which contributes to decision-making, and the right inferior frontal gyrus which has been associated with attention, imagery, social cognitive processes and speech functions.

“The brain structures are affected by many factors, such as customs, lifestyle, literature and art, and value system. Different historical geographical environments form different cultural atmospheres, which lead to differences in populations,” the researchers noted.

More recent studies in other countries supported the findings.

In 2019, a group of researchers from several countries including India and Canada published a study in the journal Neuroscience India which claimed that there was a significant difference in the shape and size of the brain between different ethnicities, including Indian and Chinese.

But one scientist from CAS, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told the Post that the conclusions of such studies “should be treated very cautiously”.

Certainly, there are differences in genomes between groups living geographically far away, and these differences should be reflected in brain structure, he explained, but such studies should involve a very large sample size, and interpreting the results ought to be done carefully to avoid racial discrimination.

Another academic in the same field, who also requested anonymity, pointed out that the Suzhou study was under-representative, and a larger sample size would be needed to give credibility to the study.

For bright young minds in China and US, curiosity and pragmatism beat distrust

Since China’s reform and opening up in 1978 until the end of 2021, around 8 million students have studied abroad, according to China’s Education Ministry.

An article published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS this year said 17 per cent of all 2020 US doctoral degrees in science and engineering went to foreign students from China. It also said between 2005 and 2015, about 87 per cent of people of Chinese origin who got their PhDs intended to stay in the United States.

Wang Haoran, CEO of biosciences company Newland, said that in his communication with some scientists working in the US, he has heard it was now getting harder to recruit competent postdoctoral researchers when young Chinese talent did not want to go to the US.

“A rough perception is that Indian students are good at communication but comparatively less willing to get hands-on, ” he said.

From his observation, domestic students in the US are more likely to be drawn to Wall Street and other high-paying careers, with only a small number choosing to undertake demanding and complicated jobs like programmers in tech firms and engineers in the manufacturing industry. They are vacancies often filled by young Chinese professionals.

A physicist at Tsinghua University, who requested anonymity, said in general Chinese students were often seen as being diligent, reliable and down to earth, while Indian students were thought to have better communication but might not be as reliable in practical task completion.

From 1978 to 2021, 8 million Chinese students have gone to America to study. But the numbers are now falling due in part to anti-Chinese sentiment. Photo: Shutterstock
Meanwhile at a conference held at the end of 2022, Indian Union Minister for Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman proudly said that India’s higher education had contributed to the best of company executives globally, adding that about 25 per cent of all start-ups in Silicon Valley were managed by “people of Indian origin”.

Several scientists who have recruited both Chinese and Indian students in their labs, told the Post that both groups are intelligent and hardworking. However an impression that many said they had was that Chinese students can be relatively conservative and less adept at communication, while those from India tend to be more open and adjust to American life easier.

According to international higher education expert Rajika Bhandari, who is also author of the book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, language has a lot to do with it.

“The one key differentiator – and perhaps advantage – for Indian students is that they are likely to be more comfortable in English because of India’s English-medium education and the predominance of English in India,” she said.

In 2021, Wu Guo, associate professor of history and chair of the Chinese studies programme at Allegheny College in the US, wrote an article about Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans. In it, he cited his friend who counted 58 CEOs of large companies and four senior government officials in the US at the time who were of Indian descent.

“Without a doubt, the achievements and profile of Indian-Americans in the political and business circles far exceed that of Chinese-Americans,” he wrote. Yet he also highlighted that Chinese-Americans who are celebrated for their achievements tend to work in academia, the arts and the study of socio-historical issues.

Chinese students beat stress by turning to Southeast Asia universities

As a growing migrant group, international students always drew attention, higher education scholar Moja said.

“There is concern, given that the loss in numbers [of international students] translates into the loss in income for universities and the general economic system. Skill loss and transference also attract attention.”

This is particularly the case when some of the brightest Chinese students are increasingly deciding not to pursue further studies in the US.

But some academics also expressed optimism.

“America is an inclusive and multicultural country that is made up of brainpower from across the world,” Wang said, adding it is an advantage that would help the country address any talent shortage problem in the long run.

Moja said another group would probably come to dominate the top jobs and opportunities, thus filling the talent gap being experienced at the moment.

Yet Bhandari said that India should not just become the new China; it should not be the sole focus for international student recruitment.

“US institutions still need to attract a diverse population of international students and India should be just one place that they look at among others,” she said.

In regions such as South Asia and Africa, Bhandari said, there was immense talent but a lack of opportunity.

“So the US will also need to consider how to increase access for a growing number of students from Global South countries.”

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