Could the ‘brain drain’ be good for the Western Balkans?

The dreaded brain drain from the Western Balkans may actually be good for development, according to a report which finds that most students emigrate only to return more educated within five years, bringing back newly acquired skills.

“Skill migration should be viewed […] as the export of intermediate goods to be processed in advanced countries and re-exported to the countries of origin,” says the report published earlier this month.

But in order for countries to fully benefit, their ‘brain gain’ initiatives must be reformed and integrated into national development policies. This will involve plugging the data gap on migrants and creating more enabling work environments for those who return home.

Students mainly emigrate to get access to better quality education, rather than to settle permanently abroad, according to the report published by the Regional Research Promotion Programme in the Western Balkans.

As the nations in the region make further steps towards integration into the European Union, such migration will be further liberalised.

This “circular skill migration” carries “transformational significance” for the future development of small economies in the Western Balkans, says the report, whose authors hope it will trigger policy debate on this issue, neglected in the region.

The report aimed to plug a major gap in the literature on diaspora and brain gain in the Balkans – especially in Macedonia where there is “lack of enthusiasm” on the part of the government and a “near total absence of officially sponsored surveys of migrants”.

Since student mobility is one of the least researched areas, the report conducted its study by interviewing pre-final and final year students at undergraduate and masters levels, and carrying out a survey of highly skilled ‘returnees’, mostly academics, researchers and entrepreneurs who studied abroad and now hold masters or PhD degrees.

In all, the report surveyed more than 3,400 students and over 260 returnees in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, in addition to conducting some 50 expert interviews.

Urge to return, not settle abroad

The key finding is that skilled migration is motivated by the urge to enhance career prospects at home, not a desire to settle permanently abroad.

Students emigrate mainly for educational reasons and intend to spend up to five years abroad before returning – which corresponds to the duration of stay of the returnees surveyed – and most would not consider migrating permanently.

Most students carry out preparation courses and brush up on their language skills before emigrating, and their preferred destinations are the United States, United Kingdom and Switzerland.

The majority are not encouraged by their home universities to emigrate.

Reasons to return: better job prospects

Meanwhile, most returnees are able to find a job back home – many in higher education institutions – and feel better off because of their experience abroad; some 90% said their experience abroad helped them to find a better job.

The reasons to return included better employment prospects and the added value of a foreign diploma in the labour market at home. Other reasons included family ties and formal requirements of scholarship programmes.

But despite there being governmental and institutional schemes to support the return of highly skilled people, most returnees were not even aware of their existence, and those who were tended to perceive the schemes as corrupt.

Those who run brain gain schemes must do more to improve their reputation and increase awareness among the highly educated – especially those already abroad, the report suggests.

“While popular media and many politicians remain largely tethered to conventional wisdom on brain drain, recent scholarship has called it into serious question on both theoretical and empirical grounds, and surveys of stakeholders and experts run counter to popular perceptions,” the report says.

“Instead of being perceived as a problem, migration is seen by most experts as an opportunity for the economies of the respective countries, given the high unemployment rates and the lack of indigenous capacity to absorb the growing labour force. Migration is viewed as a source of brain gain in the long run, as migrants return to their native lands, having acquired new skills and know-how.”

Restrictive migration policies have no sound logical or empirical basis, the report concludes.

“Restriction on the mobility of human capital with a view to retaining it at home (sending countries) or preventing it from competing with natives (receiving countries) is neither desirable, nor feasible in a fast globalising/Europeanising context. In the era of globalisation, people’s mental horizons have expanded and they are eager to move to other places and countries in order to realise their full productive potential, and increasingly so in Europe. Given the high employability of the returnees, the process of the migration and the return of these highly skilled/educated can be seen as evidence of brain gain for the countries.”

How to encourage brain gain: practical recommendations

Existing programmes meant to support the return of highly educated and skilled people “clearly need reforming”, the report says.

“We believe a comprehensive and coherent policy approach mainstreaming migration into national development plans instead of ad hoc brain gain initiatives are likely to be more beneficial,” it adds.

To tackle what the report finds to be the “dearth of and inadequate quality of data on migration and the labour markets” nations should map their diasporas and create a database for distinct categories of migrants to help mainstream migration into development plans.

This is especially needed for the Macedonian government, which, the report claims, “has not committed significant resources for harnessing the diasporas for development ” and has “shown little interest in the study of the phenomenon of migration despite its clear socio-economic significance”.

Other ways to encourage brain gain include contractual agreements and incentives to return by the scholarship or employment sponsors; preferential hiring of skilled diaspora by international donors as technical assistance staff for those countries; and creating a more enabling work environment for repatriated talent.

And given that low education quality at home is the main ‘push factor’ encouraging emigration, there is a need for introducing reforms in higher education to boost the domestic quality of tertiary education, the report says.

This may prevent long-term outsourcing of education and could be helped by encouraging more expats to return.

The Regional Research Promotion Programme in the Western Balkans did not respond to my request for comment.

Link to full report: ‘Brain Circulation and the Role of Diasporas in the Balkans – Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia’

Mićo Tatalović

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2 thoughts on “Could the ‘brain drain’ be good for the Western Balkans?”

  1. The problem is not getting better education, it is about the prospect of finding a job once, if ever, you go back to your home country. I have an example of top 5-6 students from my class going to do PhD in Science in Europe, US, Australia. No one has returned yet. The reason is simple – no jobs available, abismal conditions and project grants – at around 10,000 EUR per year compared to hundred(s) of thousands per year in other countries. How can you be competitive, have the same level and quality of science and publish scientific papers in top journals? You can’t. Even if you decide to become a Professor/Lecturer, you will have to wait until the old ones retire or die. Sad but true. There are no biotech companies, no industry. You can work in a pathology lab for 250 EUR/month but you don’t need Masters or PhD for that.

    Perhaps other disciplines outside of science offer better chances to go back to your own country once you’ve completed your degree. But until better times come, unfortunately the smartest people will stay far far and away. No one wants to stay away from their family and friends but it is a no brainer if you don’t have a choice. Cheers.