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Highly-skilled migration

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I. Introduction: Highly-Skilled Migration in an international context

Migration is a selective process. For example, from time immemorial, good health has been an asset for migrating, resulting in migrants often having a longer life expectancy than non-migrants. Now that there is a global competition for the best and the brightest, having education and skills has also become an advantage for migrating, resulting in migrants being on average better educated and more skilled than non-migrants in the sending country, and sometimes also in the receiving country.

This applies in particular to migrants from the developing to the developed world. One tenth of tertiary-educated adults born in developing countries would reside, and be employed, in more developed countries; the proportion rises to between one third and one half when science and technology personnel are considered.

In the last decade, the international context has become especially favourable to highly-skilled migration. Thus, attracting highly-skilled immigrants has become government policy in advanced industrial (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - OECD) countries over the past years. Factors lying behind this tendency revolve around various labour market deficiencies, and international competitiveness for progress, growth and innovation.

II. Highly-Skilled Migration and the “Brain Drain” debate

An important issue arising from the debate on highly-skilled migration is brain drain and its potential impact. Hence, if source countries suffer a significant loss of their highly qualified workforce and if this produces negative economic outcomes, then one usually speaks of skilled migration as a “brain drain”. It may be useful to recall that the term was coined in post-war Britain to describe the emigration of British scientists to the US. One can distinguish three views:

  1. Conventional view: brain drain is detrimental to source countries. According to this view, the transfer of skills from less to more developed countries is detrimental to source countries because skills lost through emigration are:
    • Scarce in developing countries;
    • Needed for their economic development;
    • Produced at their expense, as soon as skilled emigrants have been educated in their country of origin.
      It has a direct cost as it amounts to reverse aid to development, and an opportunity cost as it means the loss of emigrants’ contribution to the national economy. In a nutshell, brain drain is one facet of unequal global exchange.
  2. Iconoclastic view: taxing the brain drain. Recognising that the magnitude, and even the existence, of direct and opportunity costs for skilled migration is uncertain, Bhagwati highlighted that one of the problems that the emigration of the highly-skilled certainly creates is a loss in taxes. “Taxing the brain drain”, i.e. extending the tax system to include emigrants’ incomes, would provide developing countries with additional revenue, with a goal of maximizing the well-being of all citizens (including emigrants). The rationale behind this is equity: as highly-skilled migrants usually retain their citizenship (and right to vote) taxing their income is a way to avoid “representation without taxation”. An (often desirable) side-effect would be that fewer highly-skilled workers would leave to avoid being taxed abroad.
  3. Balanced view. Highly-skilled migration from developing countries may bring positive or negative outcomes, according to circumstances and policies.

It may increase financial gains through rising remittances, as soon as highly-skilled migrants’ savings in developed countries are greater than the wages that they would have received, had they stayed in their home country. For this to happen, however, their propensity to remit must be sufficient.

Highly-skilled migration may also result in gains in human capital through a “brain chain” mechanism: either thanks to technology transfers made by emigrants, or thanks to the promotion of qualifying migration, i.e. temporary migration schemes that favour the return of migrants after their acquisition of additional qualifications.

A mechanism of “brain gain” may also occur. While the emigration of skills has a direct, short-term effect of resulting in fewer skilled-workers, it may raise the expected return on education and have an indirect, mid-term effect in producing more educated people than opportunities for employment abroad, thereby elevating the level of education at home.

III. General key questions

In order to assess the costs and benefits of highly-skilled migration and more specifically the existence of a brain drain, two key questions must be asked:

  1. What is the level of skills transferred through migration? A Moroccan engineer working in Canada will not represent the same skill package being transferred from Morocco to Canada if the engineer’s tertiary education and diploma was gained after departure, once established in Canada. ‘Where did education take place?’ and ‘Were skills mainly acquired in the source or in the host country?’ are then important questions in evaluating the existence and magnitude of any brain drain. They are all the more relevant since the globalisation of university education has recently gained tremendous momentum.
  2. Are skills lost through emigration a scarce resource in the country of origin? Higher education varies enormously in quantity and quality throughout the developing world. So does the employment of highly-skilled workers. After decades of considerable efforts and investment in education by families and governments, a number of countries now suffer “brain waste”: i.e. high unemployment among young people with university education, and often with a diploma, as a result of mismatches between education and employment. Therefore, the quantity of education exported through emigration does not accurately reflect the “brain drain” phenomenon if its quality and employability at home are not accounted for.

IV. The Situation in Southern and Eastern Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa: Dynamics and patterns of Highly-Skilled Migration

The increase in the migration of highly-skilled workers has been noticeable over the last decade in and throughout the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEM) and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) regions. According to the new revised version of Docquier, Lowell and Marfuk (2009) , from 1990 to 2000, the number of skilled migrants has increased by 3.1% in Mali, 2.5% in Sudan, 2.2% in Senegal, 1.94% in Chad and Jordan to a similar value 1.7% in Libya and Morocco, 1.6% Syria and Tunisia and 1.4% in Egypt and Lebanon and for all of these there was an even more significant increase in skilled migration over unskilled migration.

This seems to be the result of two factors: on the one hand, the countries of origin increase the production of skilled workers and, on the other hand, countries of destination try to maximize the skill mix which favors their economic growth and which reduces the integration and assimilation problems of foreign citizens. Skilled migration seems an appropriate solution in squaring up international supply and demand in origin countries, but it could create shortages in required skills in the sending countries (brain drain).

Development research points out that educated family members can play a positive role in child rearing, as an educated elite is vital in modernizing a country and the lack of skilled workers reduces the growth path of the country economy, but this takes place only if qualified workers find an appropriate job.
In conjunction with brain drain, brain waste is frequently used to stress the inappropriate use of the worker’s human capital in the labour market of the country of origin and also in the labour market of the country of destination.

With regard to the presence of an educated labour force, it is noteworthy that such a workforce is the product of investment in either public or private education. Thus, the presence of an excess supply of educated labour can be imputed to a governmental education policy, which is not supported by adequate job creation. The growth model, however, suggests that, if a country invests in education, it will be able to attract foreign capital which will engender economic growth and employment. But this is not always the case as many other factors are needed: a flexible capital market, property rights etc. The type of education needs also to be taken into consideration, because some types of studies are not directly useful in production and even if a general increase in the level of education of the population is positive per se, increasing expectations without appropriate job options can create discontent and social instability, hence increasing the number of potential migrants.

But the excess supply of skilled workers can also be the result of individual choice which is distorted by the presence of job options abroad. Research on skilled migrants and health professionals abroad shows a specific link between this type of education and emigration, so in the UK 31% of doctors and 13% of nurses were born overseas in 2002. In these cases, job options abroad can distort the appropriate allocation of human capital and can be accompanied by a lack of supply in semi-skilled positions which is even more damaging to economic growth and future job creation.

A high unemployment rate among skilled workers in the labour market in SEM countries could suggest an excess supply of educated workers in relation to domestic demand or a labour supply which already takes foreign job options into account and which necessarily induces brain drain and educated unemployment. But this is not always the case, for instance, high unemployment among educated woman in Egypt only describes their long search for a job in the public administration as they are not likely to find a job in the private sector in Egypt, nor are they interested in job offers abroad.

The majority of research is based on information collected in the countries of destination and frequently not even in all the countries of destination (the Gulf countries and Libya – which are the largest employers of migrant workers in the eastern part of the SEM - lack published statistics), thus frequently educational level can be misreported. In addition, in most statistics only the level of education is reported, not the job skill level, with the exception of doctors and nurses. Also, collected information refers to the level of education without distinguishing which part of the education was obtained in the country of origin and which part in the country of destination. For example in France in 2006 only 30% of Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian educated migrants arrived at the age of 22 or above, while 60% arrived before the age of 18 and, therefore, gained part of their higher education in France. 40% of Turkish and Lebanese skilled migrants, meanwhile, entered France as children. Without this distinction it is difficult to disentangle an appropriate employment-migration policy coordinated with an educational policy and with a Diaspora settlement policy where the integration of foreign citizens becomes crucial.

It should also not be forgotten that possible brain waste in the destination country is related to different causes: inappropriate human capital, non recognition of the educational level, lack of suitable jobs available etc. and each can be tackled with different policy instruments.

An increasingly asked question is the matter of whether the emigration of skilled workers damages the sending country. The answer is difficult to find and varies according to skills and countries.

For example, it has been argued that if the outflows of skilled migrants are massive, then they not only impact negatively on the economic development of society, but also on the evolution of society at large, creating distortions there. Economists call this the “threshold externality” of human capital on development.

V. Specific objectives

CARIM research on highly-skilled migration into, through and from SEM and SSA countries will assess the trends, patterns and various dynamics underlying highly-skilled emigration and immigration from an interdisciplinary perspective that encompasses the economic-demographic, legal and socio-political aspects.

Research objectives and topics are the following:

  1. Emphasis is laid on taking a broad view with regard to the movement of skilled migrants, focusing on the emigration of educated migrants (in general with tertiary education) and assessing if this represents a loss not only for the labour market in the country of origin, but also for society at large. In fact, if we look at the skilled emigrants from the region, we find not only health professionals (for instance African doctors in the USA), but also workers with tertiary education in many other domains . Europe is not the preferred destination for skilled migrants from the region, with the exception of the United Kingdom which has long attracted students and skilled migrants and France for persons coming from French-speaking countries. Given that skilled migration has increased, emphasis should be laid on studying whether the educational system overproduces educated workers and, if so, why this overproduction takes place;
  2. In addition to studying different forms of highly-skilled migration, attention is drawn to detecting the specific legal and policy-making mechanisms that facilitate or impede these patterns;
  3. An important issue resulting from the general assessment of the economic, legal and policy-making variables at play is evidence with regard to the costs and benefits of highly-skilled migration, its extent and under which conditions and circumstances it is beneficial to both ends.

Click here to see the papers available in this series.

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CARIM has launched the new research topic: "Gender and Migration". Click here for more details and information on related events.

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CARIM is currently publishing papers following research into Highly-Skilled Migration into, through and from the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. Click on the link to view the papers in the series.

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CARIM Migration Profiles provide an overview of demographic, economic, legal and sociopolitical aspects shaping migration in the country.
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Page last updated: 23/09/2010NULL