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Brain drain doesn’t have to be fatal, and universities are part of the solution

It’s not so much about stopping the migration of skills as it is about balancing human capital.


Brain drain, defined as the massive migration – whether voluntary or forced, and therefore without hope of return – of the intellectual elite of a country, is an ancient phenomenon. The reasons for it are sometimes obvious, such as the political persecutions and Nazi pogroms that emptied Germany of many of its scientists in the lead-up to the Second World War. The same phenomenon was observed in Haiti when much of the intelligentsia left the country, fleeing the Papa Doc dictatorship.

Again today, before our astonished eyes, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is throwing thousands of people into exile as they escape from Ukraine into neighbouring European countries and as far as the Americas. Scientists from Ukraine have been able to settle in France without difficulty, thanks to a special program called PAUSE, the French acronym for the emergency hosting program for scientists in exile, established in 2017. No such program exists in Canada, but universities across the country have opened their doors to individuals who have been able to join those student and scientific communities.

Brain drain doesn’t only happen in underdeveloped countries and regions in crisis. Economic instability, unequal distribution of wealth, galloping unemployment, unattractive working conditions, and the disparity between supply and demand for skills in certain countries are leading qualified people to migrate to other countries in the hope of better living conditions. Moreover, the new knowledge economy appears to be a powerful driver of this trend, in a context where there is truly an international market for skills and a global mobility of talent that will continue to intensify. Companies, research institutes and universities around the world are competing to attract the best of the best.

The impact of skilled labour emigration on the countries of origin seems to be a taboo subject, especially in destination countries. Public debate seems to focus solely on the social, political and economic effects of migration. And yet, many parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, are facing an alarming rate of human capital flight that is only slightly offset, if at all. In fact, this uni-directional phenomenon has never been accompanied by a reverse movement towards the countries that suffer from it. Although the brain drain from the global South can be attributed to many structural and economic factors, it’s also perpetuated by rich countries, judging by their migration policies.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines everyone’s right to leave any country, including their own, so that another country may benefit from their abilities and skills. But it must be admitted that exercising this right can have harmful consequences – especially for fragile states that see their development opportunities slipping away.

Persistent emigration is almost always a symptom rather than the cause of a nationwide problem. This has not prevented some states from taking measures to contain the brain drain upstream. Former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere said that educated people who emigrated from the country were “traitors” and should have to give back to the country to compensate for the cost of their public education. Others, such as the American economist Jagdish Bhagwati, proposed that the governments of poor countries get their money back by imposing a 10 per cent tax on “traitors” that would be added to the income tax levied by the host country. Host countries were seen as instigators of brain drain by the very fact of opening their borders to qualified people.

These views are not universal. To return to the Ukrainian situation, in June, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a virtual visit to campuses in Ontario, Quebec, the Prairies and the Maritimes, calling on his country’s citizens to “come back with the state-of-the-art knowledge and with willingness to live and build an independent Ukraine.” In other words, he recognized how valuable skills that are acquired abroad can be to the nation.

Brain drain is a complex issue: recent research shows that in some cases, there are benefits for the countries of origin that can partially offset some of the damage. Diaspora networks contribute to the countries’ growth through substantial remittances that represent financial flows greater than foreign direct investment in some African countries – sometimes more than 50 per cent of household consumption – and allow families to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

Nevertheless, there remains the thorny issue of downgrading and devaluation of diplomas. There are many obstacles and challenges to the recognition of foreign qualifications, and they don’t exactly help the qualified person’s situation. In OECD countries, including Canada, academics from less developed countries come up against the “transferability” of their skills, a hurdle that makes it difficult for them to integrate. In that light, whether brains are being “drained” or “pillaged” becomes irrelevant.

In the end, it’s less about asking whether qualified people should be prevented from or encouraged to move abroad, and more about trying to understand the factors that make some countries winners and others losers. That’s why more and more experts are moving away from controversy and negative connotations and no longer speak of brain drain but of “skilled migration” or “international mobility of highly skilled workers,” emphasizing how much knowledge transfers contribute to the world’s economies. However, for this mobility to become more balanced and efficient, we need something that could be called a “mobility ethic.” Universities in the global South have a role to play in this equation with many variables, including promoting:

Standardization of academic exchanges. Exchanges enrich knowledge; that’s a given. The highly successful European program Erasmus is proof. Not only should such exchange programs be exported to other continents, but it’s important to ensure a balance between incoming and outgoing academics so that all can benefit fully with a view to equal opportunity. Formal recognition of the international experience gained would be a major incentive.

Remote collaboration. The travel restrictions dictated by the pandemic have paved the way not only for working from home, but also for remote collaboration. Today, universities have innovative and powerful resources that enable them to rethink mobility. If travel promotes brain movement mainly from the global South to the North, remote collaboration offers the opportunity to rebalance that movement by bringing together academics who would not otherwise be in contact. As a result, lesser-known universities may become more attractive. This solution could also help obviate the thorny issue of visas.

Freedom of mobility. It goes without saying that the lack of university training in the global South increases demand in the North. Climate threats, as well as socio-economic and technological challenges, are creating new skill needs that universities in the South can’t necessarily meet. Since the freedom to move from one country to another is a right, mobility between the South and the North can help reduce the tensions caused by one-way brain movement.

Equity in the valuation of skills. To stop the brain drain, it’s important to look at the source of the problem. Qualified people choose to leave at the risk of failing to have their skills recognized. Research in the North needs these skills, if only to reverse the hierarchy of knowledge. Universities in the South must therefore become incubators of skills for the North by offering specialized training according to demand. Two-way knowledge exchange can help reduce inequality of opportunity.

Empowering the acquisition of skills. Universities in the South can collaborate with the private sector to meet skill needs that can’t always be met locally. The private sector, with a view to strategic flexibility, can encourage the development of its qualified personnel in foreign universities, guaranteeing availability of employment upon their return. Free training could be a very convincing argument for employees.

Brain drain is not a death sentence for a country. Universities must propose solutions that involve an ethic of mobility. In fact, it’s not so much about stopping the migration of skills as it is about balancing human capital. That’s the royal road to successful globalization.

Sanni Yaya is vice-president, International and Francophonie, at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Senghor Research Chair in health and development. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada.
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