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Lagging economies and brain drain


The past three decades has seen a sharp increase in the flow of students between countries as a result of globalisation and a networked world.

Enrico-Orru_140pixelsThe European Union has encouraged this trend, pointing to a number of benefits, but LSE research by recent PhD graduate Enrico Orru shows that there are also downsides which have not been explored in depth.

The ‘brain drain’ phenomenon – where intelligent, well-educated individuals leave their countries for more attractive economic and professional environments – is an ongoing issue for many nations.

How do European regions with a lagging economy ensure the investment they make in educating their citizens is not lost?

The advantages of studying abroad are well documented – i.e. increased employability and income, linguistic, cultural and social benefits, global skills and adaptability, to name a few. The theory is that the sending country will also reap the benefits on the student’s return.

But theory does not always match the reality. Studying in a different country may not pay dividends for either the country of origin or the individual, Orru says.

In many cases the emigrant never returns to his/her home country, forming strong career and social ties in their new environment. And if they do return, there’s no guarantee their home region can exploit their newly acquired skills and knowledge.

“The ‘returners’ can end up over educated, over skilled, under employed or unemployed,” Orru adds. The consequence is ‘brain waste’ which is actually more serious than ‘brain drain’ because no-one benefits from student mobility in these situations.

Orru’s research focused on a specific case study - postgraduate students from Sardinia who took up scholarships to study masters and doctoral degrees in the world’s best universities. While his findings relate to one country, there are valuable lessons for the EU more generally.

Countries and regions that are struggling economically have far less to gain from sending students overseas since the likelihood of return migration is much lower. Faced with little or no career prospects on their return, young professionals are often lost to the home region permanently. Family, relationships and cultural ties can draw them back but the economic conditions have to be right.

Orru says social networks are crucial in both countries because they are often linked with economic opportunities. Whichever country has the strongest social pull usually has the advantage.

Existing empirical studies on the impact of student mobility have produced mixed results. The findings show that highly educated individuals with overseas study experience are not guaranteed career success. It depends very much on the country where they live/work. Discrimination and institutional biases all come into play.

However, it is true that people who have worked and studied abroad are more flexible in their job search than their non-mobile peers, improving their chances of securing a job because they are willing to cast a wider geographical net.

In Sardinia’s case, the postgraduate scholarships co-financed by the European Social Fund were ineffective on a number of fronts. They did not improve either the employment prospects or net wages of the recipients, Orru’s research found.

There were specific issues with the programme which highlight the weaknesses of existing student mobility schemes in the EU. Most of the scholarship recipients were not financially disadvantaged to start with, thereby adding little value. Also, the degrees offered did not align with labour needs, reducing the recipients’ chances of employment or promotion upon completion. These criticisms are likely to apply to similar programmes offered in other areas of Europe, Orru suggests.

His PhD thesis raises numerous policy issues for countries to consider when sending students abroad.

“These student mobility schemes have enormous benefits but the EU also needs to recognise the potential downsides, particularly for countries whose economies are not so buoyant. By heeding the lessons of Sardinia, other nations can improve the outcomes for both students and governments.”

Useful notes

Enrico Orru’s thesis, Student mobility policies in the European Union: the case of the Master and Back programme, is available at http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/942/|

Enrico Orru completed his PhD in the Department of Geography and Environment at LSE in July 2014. His research focused on the implications of investing in human capital and brain drain for lagging regions. He is now working on local development projects in Cagliari, Italy.

30 October 2014