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How Asia is putting a plug in brain drain

It's the end of the school year and Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) graduate Ho Ka Liang is looking forward to a bright future. But unlike his predecessors, Ka Liang plans to remain in Malaysia for most of his career.

Ka Liang is among the first batch of doctors to graduate from NUMed, the first overseas U.K. medical school that opened in 2011.

NUMed

For decades, Asia's best students flocked to Western nations in pursuit of internationally-recognized degrees with many staying on to work afterwards. The issue, known as brain drain, hindered economic development in emerging Asia.

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In a 2014 report, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said international study is often the first step towards eventual settlement in a foreign country. Asians accounted for over half of the international students in OECD nations between 2005 and 2011 with over 30 percent remaining in the country after completing their studies, data shows.

However, as more foreign universities open international branch campuses (IBCs) in Asia – the bulk of which are in China, Singapore and Malaysia – local students have an opportunity to attain a top-ranked education at home.

This shift in access to education could play a big role in reversing brain drain, experts say.

Retaining local talent

"The greatest reason I chose NUMed was the fact that I live in Johor," NUMed student Ka Liang said, referring to the Malaysian state where the university is located. "Studying in a place that is very near home comes with great benefits."

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Easier access to international training could help Asian countries retain local talent.

If students obtain an undergraduate degree in Asia, most of the networking and job opportunities they are presented with will likely be in Asia, said Guillem Riambau, assistant professor of economics at the Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

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Speaking to CNBC on graduation day, officials from Newcastle University echoed that view.

"The Malaysian government realizes that many of their brightest students don't come back from studying abroad, so through this model of asking us to come here and deliver our training in a Malaysian context, students are more likely to stay and hopefully raise the standards of health care in Malaysia," said professor Chris Day, Newcastle's pro-vice-chancellor for the Faculty of Medical Sciences.

In the case of Malaysia, the country needs to develop local doctors, Newcastle professors told CNBC, in light of its status as a global healthcare provider. American publication International Living ranked Malaysia's healthcare system third best in the world. Malaysia also took the third spot for 2014's top places to retire.

"Malaysia is aiming for a certain ratio of patient to doctors. They saw NUMed as not only an investment in health but also an investment in their economy. They needed a highly reputable university and we were lucky to be invited," stated professor Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University.

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Currently, the country has one doctor for every 600 people and the government hopes to increase that ratio to one for every 400 by 2020.

But professor Riambau cautions that the benefits for IBC host countries will be more social than economic. For example, he hopes Yale's presence in Singapore will inspire more Asians to pursue liberal arts, an area of study that usually lags behind science and maths in the region.

Hosting an IBC also improves prospects for low-income youths who are unable to travel abroad for a Western education. Schools like NUMed often receive government scholarships targeted at those students.

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"Having more foreign universities in the country opens up more opportunities to many Malaysian students, especially those with financial constraints. In addition, more options means greater competition among education providers. Competition breeds improvement, which in turn will benefit us in the future," NUMed student Ka Liang said.