Ethics Forum

University of Edinburgh

Should Edinburgh University worry about contributing to brain drain?

The phenomenon of skilled workers migrating from developing to developed countries is seen by many as a cause for concern, with developing countries footing the bill for training while developed countries enjoy the rewards. But do universities contribute to this pattern? Do international students from developing countries return home after graduation? Does international recruitment support brain drain by targeting academic elites for scholarships?

Watch a video of the debate held on March 13th, 2015 or have your say in the comments section.


Brain gain: 70% of African MBA students plan to return to work after graduation. [Image courtesy of VC4A]

Brain gain: 70% of African MBA students plan to return to work after graduation. [Image courtesy of VC4A]

Debate continues…

Migration of skilled workers often presents unique challenges for the academic sector, as found in SciDev.Net’s online debate on African higher education. The recent African Higher Education Summit produced plans for a project called Mobilise the Diaspora, aiming to turn brain drain into brain circulation.


As it happened

On Friday March 13th, 2015 we held a debate to explore the challenges that brain drain might present for global justice and human development, and how universities might contribute to reversing this trend. Speakers agreed that while there is the potential for migration patterns of skilled workers to be deleterious for developing countries, there is good reason for thinking that such migration often contributes to a more positive ‘brain circulation’ which fosters development and new opportunities in lower income countries. To that end, discussion focused in part on how migration can have this positive effect, and the University’s role in fostering equitable relationships with partner institutions. The event was chaired by Christina Boswell (Co-Director of SKAPE, University of Edinburgh).

Prof Sue Welburn (Assistant Principal Global Access, University of Edinburgh) offered statistics on the scale of global mobility – for example, 215 million people are currently living outside their country of origin. Further, she touched on the case of Greece which is currently experiencing high levels of emigration of skilled young workers, but where indicators suggest that émigrés intend to return home to Greece in the longer term. She then touched on a reframing of the phenomenon as ‘brain circulation’, where mobility makes exchange of ideas and knowledge possible, and benefits everyone involved. The University can support this through distance learning or engaging with partner institutions globally.

Jake Broadhurst (Head of the Global Academies Directorate, University of Edinburgh) began by sharing the stories of two University of Edinburgh graduates of online degree programmes. By supporting distance-learning programmes, students in resource-constrained regions are able to attain qualifications and skills without the need to leave their home and emigrate. He also questioned the right of people living in resource-rich communities to create barriers for those coming from lower income countries who seek new opportunities and secure and fulfilling employment. Finally, he suggested that capacity-building with global partner institutions is key to addressing power imbalances that limit growth and opportunity in lower income countries. In particular, control over research grant money, student exchange fee structures, and publication credit for research conducted in resource-poor regions were identified as areas in which universities have agency that can improve the fairness of global partnership efforts.

Kieran Oberman (Chancellor’s Fellow in Politics, University of Edinburgh) questioned whether brain drain is in fact problematic, citing studies indicating that migration is effective in reducing poverty. In part this is due to migrants sending money home, which in many low income regions of the world outstrips global development aid and constitutes a significant revenue source. He also suggested that mobility reduces the problem of ‘brain waste’, where skilled workers are unable to put their skills to use in their home country due to lack of opportunity. However, in some cases brain drain can have harmful effects as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, with chronic shortages of trained health professionals and as many as half of all newly trained doctors and nurses emigrating each year. He suggested that when people emigrate for the sake of training and study, and then return home, this results in a net ‘brain gain’ for the host country.

On the University’s responsibility, he argued from practicality that the University is poorly placed to tell whether brain drain is harmful or not in any given case, and therefore should not seek to limit opportunities for prospective students from resource-poor countries. Further, he questioned whether expecting skilled workers from resource-poor countries to stay in their home communities exceeds the limits of what we should morally require of them. Finally, the freedom to migrate is an important one, and remedies for the harms of brain drain should not seek to limit migration.

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This entry was posted on January 23, 2015 by .
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