Brain drain and mobile talent: where international development and higher education overlap

Efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work

Development practitioners call it brain drain. In higher education it’s called graduate retention. In the UK difficulties in retaining graduates in most cities outside of London is an obstacle to rebalancing the economy – a recent study found 15 graduates leave Yorkshire for London for every one moving the other way. In development-speak, brain drain from one country to another is traditionally seen as leading to a ‘human capital’ deficit in the migrant’s home country.

In some cases, an exodus of skilled workers has been encouraged. Devash Kapur explains how Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, has encouraged migration of ‘disgruntled groups’ to maintain authoritarian rule. Much of the Zimbabwean middle class, having the financial means to migrate, has fled to South Africa. Such migration benefits Mugabe, who maintains power and minimises opposition, whilst Zimbabwe receives remittances from the diaspora in South Africa, and South Africa benefits from skilled workers (in particular demand as many highly trained South Africans in turn have emigrated elsewhere).

Others such as Easterly and Nyarko argue that there could be some upsides to brain drain. A few examples:

The migrants themselves are better off, by revealed preference since migration is voluntary.

The migrants may send remittances back to boost the incomes of those left behind.

The migrants may have a positive effect on politics or institutions from abroad.

The migrants may facilitate trading networks that increase source-country exports to the destination country.

I admire work that challenges conventional thinking, and I think most of this analysis holds up at both the level of the individual, and at a macro or national level. What’s missing is the gap in-between: the impact on those places beyond the capital city, the ‘second tier’ cities, the towns and rural areas who lose their skilled workers and human capital. The retention of skilled workers in towns and cities outside the capital allows these places to become sustainable generators of their own human capital, training and educating the next generation who will work and study there, and in turn help that place to grow and to prosper. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Another argument worth exploring from Easterly and Nyarko is this one:

The migrants may return home permanently or temporarily, bringing back technology.

If we substitute ‘technology’ for ‘skills’ (and other assets like networks and experience of other systems and cultures), similar arguments are made for higher education in the UK. Graduates move to London for their first job after graduating, but return to their home town – perhaps to start a family, or buy a house – for their second, third or fourth job. The graduates return more ‘valuable’ than they left, and the town benefits. Similarly, students studying abroad will return to opportunities at home, as seen in Asia. There is a ‘boomerang’ effect, with short-term investments giving medium-term returns.

There’s been some recent work on the role universities can play in retaining skilled graduates, and to help areas retain the skills and knowledge that are needed locally. About 18 months ago the City Growth Commission looked at the role of universities in ‘metro areas’. One recommendation proposed ‘golden handcuffs’ to retain graduates through monetary or other incentives. Another – and I think more promising – recommendation was to establish a graduate clearing scheme to funnel good-but-unsuccessful job applications to large graduate recruiters towards small enterprises. And last month, the Government Office for Science looked at graduate mobility, drawing on five case studies of excellent work by universities fostering entrepreneurship, matching supply and demand, working with SMEs, and using data to improve retention.

Ultimately, efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people from elsewhere will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work. Universities clearly play a role here too. Work by KPMG describes ‘Magnet Cities’ that attract the young wealth creators of tomorrow, and in turn create an air of energy and excitement about a place. Several of the examples highlight the role of universities. The Government Office for Science report above talks about the importance of ‘place attractiveness’. A recent book, ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’, argues that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe are reinventing themselves, with the help of universities, as innovation centres that can solve the problems of the future.

Migration is, of course, highly complex, with large cities also suffering from talent deficits in particular areas, masked by overall trends in movement. In London, creative experts are leaving for more affordable cities. Some commentators encourage the term ‘brain circulation’ to reflect this. Perhaps, above all else, mobility should be prioritised – it shouldn’t matter whether a graduate remains in his or her town after graduating, but rather that the town attracts those people with the skills needed for its development, regardless of where they are from.

Anchor tenants

It may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are

When the Grand Central shopping centre in Birmingham opened alongside a redeveloped New Street Station in September 2015, a fair amount of the fanfare was directed towards John Lewis, the ‘anchor tenant’ in the development. The Birmingham Mail described 2015 as the year that changed Birmingham forever and highlighted the arrival of the store. And John Lewis themselves were quick to capitalise on the attention focused on the city’s regeneration, commissioning ‘the largest panoramic photograph ever taken of the city’s changing skyline’ (it’s worth a look).

Anchor tenants are highly prized in retail – they bring prestige and draw in crowds, who often spend money in other shops and restaurants in the area. They encourage other shops and businesses to move in to the area. They invest heavily, are large employers and are there for the long-term. In return they may pay lower rent than surrounding shops.

There are strong parallels between anchor tenants in retail and the role of universities as anchor institutions in cities. Here, I pick out a few examples of universities who closely resemble ‘anchor tenants’ – investing heavily in the area and becoming a core part of the identity of the city, and in turn shape its character. They are all significant economic actors, employing large numbers of people and tying their future to that of the area and the people that will visit, study and live in it. There are two key themes: the long-term nature of the anchor role, and the immediate co-location with either government, the public sector, or significant transport and infrastructure hubs.

1. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin

Trinity College Dublin (red) sits next to the Irish Houses of Parliament (blue). On the other side of the campus sit the National Library and the National Gallery. For a member of parliament to speak to an academic, or a student to sit in on a debate, they simply need to cross College Green.

2. Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki

The main university building (red) sits to one side of Senate Square. Opposite is the Prime Minister’s Office (blue), and overlooking the square and visible from sea is Helsinki Cathedral (yellow). The university departments and facilities are scattered in an arc behind the square, but this is the symbolic heart of the city.

3. Accra, Ghana

Accra

Although the University of Ghana has its main campus at Legon, 12km north of the city centre, it also has a smaller campus in the city centre (red), near to several government ministries (blue), the African Development Bank, the National Theatre and the International Conference Centre (yellow).

4. Birmingham, England

Birmingham

You don’t need to be built as part of the original city centre development to be an anchor tenant. We return to Birmingham, but this time to a different station – Curzon Street. Birmingham City University (BCU) is investing heavily in Birmingham’s Eastside (red), near the proposed site of the High Speed 2 railway terminal (blue). BCU is anticipating the future, and actively shaping it – in this case by helping establish a college for rail engineering.

There are thousands more examples throughout the world, including universities who are anchor institutions in smaller towns and cities. Some have been deliberately placed by city planners hundreds of years ago next to government buildings. Others are pre-empting new hearts of cities. Some have a central presence that links to external sites (we can also see this with university satellite campuses in London, for example). Whether the buildings themselves are new or old, the planning is long term.

My initial impression is that ‘micro-location’ counts. That is, it may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are – if you are across the road from parliament, you are likely to be consulted ahead of institutions further out. And if you take the initiative and build in an area of potential strategic importance, and invest heavily, and have room for expansion, business and industry will co-locate with you.

POLAR for the world – splitting countries into 7,500 sections

I’ve been working with some of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) datasets on young people’s participation in higher education, and was thinking how useful and interesting this information would be on a global scale.

There are two key maps. The first is Participation of Local Areas (POLAR); see an example for Brighton, UK, above. The POLAR classification looks at how likely young people are to participate in higher education across the UK and shows how this varies by area. Areas in red are those that have the lowest participation rates while areas in dark blue are those that have the highest participation rates. Yellow is in the middle.

Gaps detailed

The second is more nuanced and perhaps more useful. It shows gaps in participation – the proportion of young people participating in higher education compared to that expected given GCSE-level attainment and ethnic profile. In the example above, also for Brighton, in those areas shaded red young participation is much lower than expected. In those areas shaded blue, participation is much higher than expected. In those areas shaded white, young participation rates are as expected.

Whilst higher education participation data is probably available at country or broader sub-country level for most countries, the real value is in the hyper-local detail – in this case at the level of electoral wards, of which there are 7,669 in England alone. The potential insights are obvious from the discrepancies in colour between neighbouring wards. I’d be fascinated to see other countries divided into 7,500 sections and each section scored for higher education participation – would countries with similar inequality levels or income levels look similar? How do urban and rural areas compare across countries? How about those areas in close proximity to a cluster of universities or a major transport network? Or those close to a border of a wealthier neighbour?

As an aside, there’s a very good podcast on data and development on the Development Drums podcast.

How universities can help ‘smart cities’ become transformative (and why leapfrogging is difficult)

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences

We are some way from realising the transformative effects of smart cities,1 and further still from these effects benefiting the poorest in society. I have a couple of thoughts on their potential:

  1. Can smart cities be to cities what smartphones are to ‘dumb’ phones? A button (non-smart) phone today seems closed and antiquated compared to the limitless panoply of apps and the functionality of touchscreen phones. Or will the ‘wide experiential gulf’ between the top-end smartphones and generic low-end smartphone handsets be replicated in tomorrow’s smart cities? I suspect there will be wide variations in effective implementation, and I suspect the impact will be far less dramatic and sudden than the shift from ‘dumb’ to smart phones. Cities have been developing for thousands of years and smart infrastructure needs to be embedded and layered upon existing foundations. But a transformative, positive wave of impact is possible.
  2. Can this wave of possible impact enable some cities to ‘leapfrog’ their development? Comparing cities again to phones, think of a country with limited phone networks skipping the installation of telegraph poles and landlines and instead building a fast mobile network. Kenya, for example, has excellent mobile phone reception in remote areas but limited landlines. So could a smart city allow urban areas with poor healthcare, high crime, limited access to, for example, banks and bus routes, and areas of general deprivation to leapfrog some of the traditional, slower means of development? Unfortunately, smart cities are no shortcut, and mobile phones are an unusually effective leapfrogger. Instead, you usually need to have gone ‘medium tech’ before you can go ‘high tech’.

So what is needed? Cities will need to be both adaptable and smart. Underpinning both is social capital. The World Economic Forum has developed a four part taxonomy of city competitiveness, with ‘soft connectivity’, a city’s social capital, a critical factor. Education is the ‘ultimate soft connectivity’, and cities can specialise in knowledge intensive niches by capitalising on education. Education and soft connectivity make investments in hard infrastructure and new technology more productive.

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences. A city with a highly skilled workforce, with access to continuous education and training opportunities, is also a highly adaptive one.

An adaptive city is a resilient city. Work by Nesta has shown that 87 percent of highly creative workers are at low or no risk of automation compared with 40 percent of jobs in the UK as a whole. You can complete an online survey to determine whether your job is at risk of being taken by a robot. Whilst automation is likely to solve many more problems than it creates, a successful city in future years will adapt to these changes, attracting creative industries and highly skilled jobs.

The objectives of ‘smart’ and ‘adaptable’ cities are mutually reinforcing, with a smart city a more responsive one, and an adaptable city more likely to benefit from the insights delivered through data and technology. Universities play an important role in developing and testing new technologies, curating and understanding data (and the infrastructure behind it), and conceptualising and operationalising the ‘Internet of Things’ – a network of physical objects that collect and exchange information.

City leaders and universities will need to work together to harness the benefits of smart cities. The UK Future Cities Catapult is a good example of this, bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to turn ideas into prototypes, including developing sensor networks and unlocking urban data. There is particular focus on smart cities in emerging economies. The Catapult has just signed an MOU with the China Center for Urban Development, building on smart city collaboration two years ago between Bristol and Guangzhou, and last year between Manchester and Wuhan. And in 2015 India set a target of 100 smart cities, focussing on satellite towns of larger cities and modernising existing mid-sized cities. It will be interesting to see whether any ‘leapfrogging’ takes place within these cities, and how inclusive the benefits are.


  1. There are many definitions of smart cities, but I like the European Commission one: ‘a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses’.