Brain train

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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But perhaps this is an outdated way of looking at the issue.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.)


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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