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Publications:Focus on: Is one country's brain gain another one's drain

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Date of publication: 17 July 2017


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"I not only use all the brains that I have, but all I can borrow." – Woodrow Wilson

As one of the four fundamental freedoms guaranteed by EU law, freedom of movement for workers, pursuant to article 45 guarantees every EU citizen the right to move freely, to study and work in another member state. From a European perspective, the fact that people are able to pursue education and employment opportunities across borders unhindered – generating greater individual and collective wealth as a consequence – is usually considered beneficial. But are the results of this fundamental freedom positive for everyone, or are some paying a price for this freedom?

Many EU citizens exercise their right to be mobile. On 1 January 2015, according to EUROSTAT, 18.5 million persons had been born in a different EU Member State from the one where they were resident. Germany (4 million), the United Kingdom (3.1 million) and France (2.2 million) received the most EU migrants, while Poland (0.2 million), Romania (0.1 million) and Bulgaria (0.04 million) the fewest.

These statistics indicate that in Europe mobility flows predominantly from east to west, with consequences for both sending and receiving countries. For the sending countries, there is a loss of productivity potential, fiscal income and qualified, working people to pay the costs of public health and social security systems. Conversely the economic benefits of freedom of movement are concentrated largely in Western European states that reap the rewards of prior investment into the education of the migrants entering their country.

Policies in many fields have an impact on mobility, and the social environment is a key reason for population shifts. Lack of opportunities and economic depression often contribute as push factors to human capital flight, whereas host countries usually offer a more developed economy and better living conditions.

While social and economic conditions are difficult areas to improve in the short term, education policies, and in particular policies on learner mobility, might be where the seeds of future labour market mobility are being laid. In 2011, the Council of Education Ministers adopted a recommendation that stated: Learning mobility, meaning transnational mobility for the purpose of acquiring new knowledge, skills and competences, is one of the fundamental ways in which young people can strengthen their future employability […]. Europeans who are mobile as young learners are more likely to be mobile as workers later in life. Learning mobility can make education and training systems and institutions more open, more European and international, more accessible and more efficient.

The recommendation identifies a direct link between studying abroad and a higher propensity to emigrate and live abroad. While this makes sense intuitively, it is also supported by empirical research.

While the proportion of degree mobile graduates is not dramatic, the Eurydice mobility scoreboard reveals that the higher the educational level, the larger the proportion of students graduating abroad. At EU level, while 8.5 % of doctoral students have taken their PhD abroad, only 4 % have taken a master degree in another country and 2.4 % their bachelor.

Academic staff in many countries are also mobile. A recent Eurydice report illustrates that countries such as Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom have a substantial share of foreign citizens among their academic staff, thus replicating the east-west migration pattern observed for student mobility.

Could the likelihood of 'brain drain' also have consequences on education policy making? In theory, countries facing brain drain should be acting to offset the loss of highly-skilled students, graduates and academics in different ways. They could, for example, encourage incoming mobility and immigration through making their own education systems more attractive, with more programmes opened in widely spoken languages. This could also attract their own citizens back after a period abroad.

However, some suggest that mobility could lead to both sending and receiving countries cutting investment in education. Receiving countries may consider that since part of their human capital requirements will be covered from abroad they can economise at home. Meanwhile sending countries may feel inclined to cut spending in the knowledge that the brightest and the best will emigrate. However, it is also suggested that low quality of the education system itself may induce brain drain, and thus countries would need to invest more to counter this effect.

Clearly free movement is a complex issue that may not always produce win-win situations. While many tend to concentrate on the numerous positive aspects of student and staff mobility, there is perhaps also a need to analyse the conflicting national interests of sending and receiving countries. The EU might play a role in mitigating the downsides of internal European migration - for example through developing compensatory measures for educational investment in those countries which lose human capital. This in turn could stimulate more equitable learning mobility opportunities for all young people to benefit from a mobility experience.

Authors: Lars Bo Jakobsen and David Crosier