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Brain drain: what we know
and what we do not know
Bernd Wächter1
15 Rue D’Egmont, B 1000, Brussels, Belgium

In many countries of the world, and probably most markedly in Europe, the mobility of ‘brains’, that is, of tertiary students and of researchers, has in recent years gained currency, and has in fact become an important part of higher education policy. The European Union (EU) expressed the importance it attached to mobility with the creation of programmes such as ERASMUS for students and the Marie Curie scheme for young researchers. Recently, it has started its global ERASMUS Mundus Programme. Important European policy agendas, such as the Bologna and Lisbon processes, also attribute considerable importance to international mobility. The same is true at the national level, where governments have established mobility‑related policy objectives and are running bi‑lateral schemes for international mobility. For the initiators of these policies and programmes, mobility is a good thing, worthy of every possible support.

At the same time, and parallel to this view of things, there is — and has been for a long time — a darker perception of international mobility, or, to be precise, of some of its (supposed) effects, which are fears linked to the idea of the ‘brain drain’. Although the term has never been very precisely defined, it is generally understood to refer to a sustained and substantial net outflow of persons from one country to another. If it happens on a large scale, ‘brain drain’ can threaten the very foundations of a country’s higher education and science systems, which is (said to be) the case in a number of developing countries. The term ‘brain drain’ has also been applied to migration movements between developed countries. One expression of this is the deep conviction of many, if not most observers that Europe is continuously losing researchers and other highly skilled professionals to the USA. This supposed or real exodus has always raised fears. Such concerns have recently been additionally fuelled by the concept of the ‘knowledge society’. According to this theorem, the wealth and material well‑being of a nation depends, today much more than in earlier times, on its capacity to produce new knowledge and innovation. To lose one’s key knowledge producers, the researchers, is therefore deemed as much more damaging in times of knowledge‑based economies than, say, in past agrarian societies.

At first glance, the parallel existence of the high regard for internationalization and international mobility, and the fear that it may generate a ‘brain drain’, appears contradictory, but this is not necessarily the case.


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B. Wächter

First, the mobility programmes of the EU, and of individual countries, are intended to foster temporary mobility. Students and researchers are expected to return ‘home’ after a period of study or research abroad (the precise extent to which they do is another issue, about which we often lack information). ‘Brain drain’, on the other hand, is associated with permanent or at the very least, long‑term migration.

Secondly, the mobility schemes in question are, in the majority, intra‑European or cater for mobility between countries with a similar extent of development2. ‘Brain drain’, however, is mostly expected to take place between countries with a very different level of development. In those cases where scholarship programmes organize mobility from developing to developed countries, there is often an obligation on the scholarship holder to return on completion of the period abroad. Beyond the question of whether or not the international mobility of highly skilled professionals and of researchers is a good thing or an instrument that fosters ‘brain drain’ there is another issue, less rarely addressed but at least as important, that is, is there ‘brain drain’ at all, and, if so, which countries are the... Show More

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