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Brain train

Ryan Hahn's picture

Writing on the World Bank People Move blog, Sonia Plaza reports that U.S. Census numbers show that non-natives residing in the U.S. are more likely to hold a masters degree than native-born U.S. citizens.* This leads her to ask the following questions in a post on "Brain drain" and the global mobility of high-skilled talent:

  • What are the challenges for the U.S. in developing, finding, and retaining talent?
  • Will foreign students continue to choose the U.S. as a place to study or will they prefer other countries?

But perhaps this is an outdated way of looking at the issue. Jane Knight, an expert on international education issues and a professor at the University of Toronto, recently described the migration patterns of the highly educated as a 'brain train'. This seems to be a better description of a globalized workforce than older notions of brain drain or even brain gain:

Many countries invest in major marketing campaigns to attract the best and brightest talent to study and work in their institutions to supply the “brain power” for innovation and research agendas. The complexities and challenges of academic and professional mobility should not be underestimated—nor should the benefits. But, it is impossible to ignore the latest race for attracting international students and academics for brain power and income generation. The original goal of helping students from developing countries study in another country to complete a degree and return home is fading fast as nations compete for retaining human resources.

Research is showing that international students and researchers are increasingly interested in taking a degree in country A, followed by a second degree or perhaps internship in country B, leading to employment in country C and probably D, finally returning to their home country after 8 to 12 years of international study and work experience. Hence, the emergence of the term “brain train” represents a phenomenon that is presenting benefits and risks for both sending and receiving countries. Higher education has gained more recognition as an important actor and is working in closer collaboration with immigration, industry, and the science and technology sectors to build an integrated strategy for attracting and retaining knowledge workers. The convergence of an aging society, lower birth rates, the knowledge economy, and professional labor mobility is introducing new issues for higher education and producing some unanticipated and for many troubling results in terms of international academic mobility and recruitment.

(Correction: In my original post, I incorrectly attributed the post on People Move to Dilip Ratha. In fact, Sonia Plaza was the author. Apologies.)


Submitted by Sonia Plaza on
Commenting on a post on the World Bank PSD blog regarding my recent post on the World Bank People Move blog, Ryan Hahn discussed the issue of “brain-train”. In the PSD post, it was mentioned that “the original goal of helping students from developing countries study in another country to complete a degree and return home is fading out”. I completely agree with it. At last year’s Global forum on Science and Technology organized for the World Bank, I discussed the issue on the role of the diaspora and how to tap into the networks of scientists and professionals from developing countries and how to facilitate virtual return, short visits, electronic communication to promote knowledge transfer and technology transfer. (See: session on “Building R&D Capacities in Developing Countries,,contentMDK:21183813~menuPK:3360737~pagePK:64168445~piPK:64168309~theSitePK:3156699,00.html The issue of mobility of talent has to be analyzed at three levels: (i) mobility of students; (ii) mobility of professors; and (iii) mobility of universities and programs. Each of these issues present several challenges for developing countries:  Mutual recognition of degrees and accreditation of universities do not exist for the majority of the developing countries institutions’ unless there are bilateral agreements between universities;  Students from developing countries find very hard to find a job in a developed country if they do not have a degree from a recognized university;  Visa issues for high skilled professionals from developing countries are becoming more stringent in terms of requirements (See a recent post on: The European Pact on Immigration and Asylum: Will there be more competition for skilled workers? My question to the international education experts is how the Bologna process taking place in Europe will affect the recognition of higher education systems around the world? Will these facilitate the mobility of talent or will it restrict for students and workers with higher education degrees from developing countries?

Submitted by B.C. Albaghetti on
As being discussed in another World Bank blog,, Ms Plaza's description of the 2007 Census report is actually misleading (as is yours), and the purported derivation from such report in her asking of those questions is at best debatable.

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