Gain or drain? How study abroad affects our economy

Far from depriving the UK of valuable talent, 'graduate migration' can offer many benefits, says Jessica Moore

The number of British students enrolling at international universities is rising, but at what cost? Building broader networks and a greater diversity of experience enhances our position in the global economy, but it could also mean we’re facing a “brain drain” where our biggest and brightest talent floods out of the UK.

“A generation ago, going to university was seen as a great preparation for life,” says Will Archer, CEO of the International Graduate Insight Group (igraduate), an independent, global benchmarking and consultancy service. “In today’s and tomorrow’s world, is limiting yourself to your national borders a preparation for living?”

The British Council’s position is clear: students should pack their bags and go. Simon Williams, the British Council’s director of EU education programmes, says: “We would encourage people to study abroad because we can see the great benefits, both on a personal and on a professional level.”

Yet despite a number of British Council surveys showing that employers value international experience, students seem reluctant to leave. An estimated 33,000 UK citizens are currently undertaking higher education in other parts of the world, accounting for just 1.8 per cent of all UK students in higher education. These are divided equally between undergraduates and postgraduates, with roughly 0.9 per cent choosing to study abroad for some or all of their course at each level.

Ronald Skeldon, a professorial fellow in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, notes: “It’s difficult to assess the benefits of international study to us as a nation, because the numbers going are quite small, so the impact they might have on our economy or society would be very small.”

Traffic is hectic in the opposite direction, however. Currently educating 370,000 international students, the UK comes second after the USA as a global study destination – although China, Denmark, Holland and Finland are fast encroaching on that territory. These are precious imports: a number of UK postgraduate science, technology and engineering courses could collapse without international students. In biotechnology, 93 per cent of students are international; in computer science it’s 82 per cent; and in engineering subjects, nearly 90 per cent. “We know that the UK is a net importer of foreign students,” says Williams. “An interesting question would be: could any brain drain among UK postgraduates be offset – or maybe more than offset – by the ‘brain gain’ of postgraduates from other countries who come to study here and stay?”

Outward mobility – the number of British students taking places at international universities – has become an area for research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the British Council, within universities, and for the Government.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, then under a different name, commissioned a study exploring the motivations and experiences of UK students studying abroad. The review involved 560 questionnaires completed by UK students living and studying in the USA, Ireland, Australia, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. The report suggests the notion of brain drain is ill-founded: 76 per cent of surveyed students planned to return.

Fiona Smith, lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Applied Population Research at Dundee, worked on the report.

“About half of those we surveyed were engaged in postgraduate study, and half were in undergraduate study,” she explains. “Interestingly, those with the highest qualifications were the most likely to intend to return to the UK, either after they completed their course, or after a short period of working abroad.” Smith adds that there was a distinction between those who were studying abroad in order to migrate – which happens a lot when it comes to studying in Australia – and those who wanted to access particular expertise to develop their career and their personal skills. “Returning to the UK, for them, was part of that plan,” she says.

Skeldon says it’s important to consider the reality of migration, too. “We can look at whether the students who study overseas intend to come back, but what they actually do is another thing,” he says. He cites his own experience: “I went overseas to study as a postgraduate, but ultimately I came back. Expatriates are a minority of any population, and circumstances change. You may have elderly parents you want to support, for example – so it’s not just controlled by economic factors.”

Perhaps geographical location is unimportant anyway. As Archer points out: “There are British graduates working all over the world. The traditional brain drain view is that those people are therefore not helping Britain, but that’s not the case at all. They may be working for international organisations, they may even be working in British organisations based abroad.” Equally, people who find employment in the UK might not necessarily work for a British company. “It’s about how we all connect with each other, not which jurisdiction you pay tax in or where your children go to school. My neighbours were abroad for 20 years; that doesn’t mean that they weren’t helping the British economy.”

Christina Yan Zhang, international officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), goes further: “Currently, we are not in a position to cultivate highly skilled British workers who have the ability to compete globally,” she says. “Some British companies rely on recruiting highly skilled workers from overseas. If we can encourage our students to go overseas, we can answer an urgent need from British industry.”

Brain drain or not, UK employers overwhelmingly welcome international experience. According to Archer: “For students to be the most employable in the current market, they must have an international dimension to their studies… We would be creating less capable, less well-prepared graduates for the global challenges that the UK faces if none of them went abroad.” This is borne out by a 2007 British Council report, in which 60 per cent of the UK’s top 20 employers indicated that experience of international study enhances employability. The majority of companies surveyed commented that study overseas makes an applicant more rounded in terms of skills, experience and personal development.

“The major driver for postgraduates seems to be to make yourself more employable,” Archer says. “That’s particularly true of the taught postgraduate market. So they’ll look at the financial investment of spending time at an international university, and they seem to feel they’ll be worth more as a result. It’s not the postgraduate label that makes someone more employable, it’s what they do with their time.”

But if the benefits for the individual in terms of employment, and for the UK in terms of strengthening our national economy, are so great, then why aren’t our students flocking overseas? Smith says: “UK universities have a very high reputation internationally. When you look at the top-ranked universities in the world, a significant number are in the UK, so you don’t have to leave to get a quality education.” Indeed, in the Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2010, three of the top 10 are English institutions. “A second issue that came out strongly in the research is that young people don’t necessarily have information about studying abroad, and have no notion about funding and financial support for that.

And the final issue that comes up is language and the fact that most British postgraduate students will not take a language along with them, so the chances of them feeling confident studying in a country where English isn’t the national language are smaller. Now, across Europe, a number of universities are increasingly teaching in English in order to attract international clientele.”

With their Global Future campaign, the NUS is tackling these barriers head on, challenging the lack of ambition among British students to study abroad, the paucity of information available to help them make that decision, and the language barrier. The union is also lobbying the Government to make the case for the benefits of study overseas, and promoting scholarships to its student members. “Financial support is important, especially for postgraduates,” says Zhang. “Traditionally, it has been the middle classes [that study overseas], but we want to make it more accessible by promoting government-funded programmes and courses of international study, including placements. This is about changing perspectives, encouraging international communication, and widening access.”

Zhang adds: “To be more competitive in business, we need to have language skills and international understanding. Culturally, Britain has been somewhere where few people speak other languages and the acquisition of foreign language is not as popular as it could be.” Williams similarly stresses the benefits of multilingualism: “If you [go to university] in a foreign country, especially one with a foreign language, that’s much more of a challenge, so the personal achievement of getting through that is greater.”

Zhang sees this as a broader matter that spans immigration and globalisation. “If in the next 10 or 20 years we see more British students going overseas to study, most of them will bring back a wealth of language, culture, experience, and it will help to increase the diversity and multiculturalism of British society,” she believes. “People who worry that we’ll lose some of our best talent need to stop thinking about how we stop our talent seeking an international education, and instead focus on how the Government can incentivise those students to bring their skills and expertise back to the UK after they have gained their qualifications, so that we benefit as a nation.”

Is there a risk that the UK could lose talent, thereby compromising our reputation and threatening the strength and capability of our research? “I suppose there is a danger,” admits Smith.

“If you put together the culmination of all the issues – increasing student fees for domestic students in the UK, restrictions to international student visas, increased encouragement for UK students going abroad – you could hypothesise that all this might produce a lower number of postgraduate students in the UK. But all the figures suggest that the numbers of UK students going abroad are very much smaller than those hoping to come to the UK, so the net balance is very much in the UK’s favour.” Instead, she argues that British students who study internationally are enjoying access to distinctive education, gaining experiences of working and living abroad, and developing important global networks, which could be important in business. “One way or another, they then bring all that back to the UK. I think the idea of brain drain is not the right way of looking at postgraduate migration – it’s much more a case of ‘brain exchange’.”

“The whole idea of education is that it’s a circulation of brains,” concludes Archer. “I’m absolutely clear that we would have a weaker economy and a weaker graduate population by having a purely domestic sense of context.”



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