Brain Drain Beyond the Buzzword

taxiBrain drain is one of these words that captivates many debates about immigration. It points to unintended negative consequences of migration, but we really should move away from these eye-catching terms (brain drain, brain gain, brain circulation, you name it). First of all, we’re really looking at the phenomenon of skills mismatch. When we talk about gains and drains, we talk about hierarchies; when we talk about mismatch this hierarchy is no longer central. Second, we need to bear in mind that a qualification of the same name need not be equivalent. Simply stating the number of taxi drivers with tertiary education doesn’t carry that much meaning without additional information on the educational system.

Third, and most importantly, what is absent in most contribution on so-called brain drain is a consideration of the counterfactual: What would be if the individual hadn’t migrated? What if he or she stayed in the country of origin? It’s here that the value of thinking in terms of mismatch comes to the fore. If Tibor T. has a university diploma from Hungary but now is a cabbie driver in London, we cannot conclude that this is an instance of brain drain. We need to know more about Tibor’s actual degree to know what the alternative would have been in Hungary. Perhaps he did a degree where there are no real job prospects, and perhaps the most likely outcome in Hungary would have been unemployment. While we’d still talk about skills mismatch, it isn’t so clear we’d even speak of over-education…

Image credit (CC-licenced)

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