Daniel Roberts asks if the “brain drain” phenomenon is a problem in Wales and, if so, what can we do to solve it?
The movement of people has always been a crucial topic of debate in Wales.
Over the last couple of centuries, numerous forms of in-migration have changed the shape of Wales and Welshness. In the nineteenth century, people from across the UK migrated to the south Wales valleys to work in the mines, and since even before then, Cardiff has been a multicultural, yet distinctly Welsh hotbed of different identities. On the other hand, the pressures of second-homes have had an unignorable impact on the Welsh-speaking communities of north and western Wales.
But possibly as important as this dynamic is the outflow of people from Wales to other parts of the UK. Historically, young Welsh people have left the country to go and work elsewhere when necessary, particularly in major cities like Liverpool and London, or in specific industries, like car-making in Oxford. This process of people leaving a region to move to major “core” conurbations is the standard experience of a “peripheral” part of a much larger economy like ours, and is called a “Brain Drain”. But what effect does this have on the economy and our living standards, and should it be a specific policy goal to reverse or halt it?
Firstly, we need to establish what a brain drain is, and whether this phenomenon is actually happening in Wales. A brain drain is when there is a substantial movement of highly-skilled or qualified people from one region to another. This is important because most economists agree that human capital – the skills, experience, and knowledge of the people in an economy – is a key aspect of economic development. Graduates are used as a way of measuring this, due to the fact that degrees act as a signal of human capital accumulation to employers and government. Of course, there are plenty of people without degrees who have contributed hugely to economic development – as well as to quality of life more generally through the arts, sport or work in their communities. But graduate flow is an important phenomenon to keep track of because of the significant investment and focus in getting young people to attend universities.
Whether a “brain drain” is happening in Wales has been a subject of debate in academic circles.
In 2011, WISERD undertook a major piece of research looking at graduate flows in the United Kingdom. It showed that Wales was better at retaining students and graduates than English regions, but lagged behind Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England as a whole.
Last year, Cardiff Business School economist Andrew Henley suggested that the data from 2013-2016 was “consistent with a brain drain”, as more graduates left Wales than arrived. Interestingly, there is evidence that those who leave Wales want to – and often do – return to Wales at some point in the future, so a “brain circulation” may be a better representation of the trend as opposed to a mere loss of academic talent. But nevertheless, there is a consensus – Wales is a net loser of young graduates, and this trend is magnified when looking at particular types of students; those with STEM degrees, entrepreneurs, and higher-earners.
Importantly, this trend is coming at the same time as major demographic changes: there are more and more older people living in Wales as life expectancy has (until recently) been growing and, as discussed earlier, people move or return to Wales to live in later life. It is this demographic shift that is undeniably a serious concern for the future. Young, highly-qualified people tend to pay a lot of money into the public purse throughout their careers – tax which pays for crucial public services that will be stretched further by the demographic changes we are seeing. At the moment, 92% of the Welsh Government’s budget comes from the UK Treasury – the block grant – but next year, that will fall to 79%, with 10% of the income tax we pay going directly to the new Welsh Treasury. This makes the tax base more crucial to the public services provided by the Welsh Government. Brexit will make this situation even more difficult: reduced immigration from the EU will mean fewer workers for our public sector, especially the NHS, and as EU immigrants make a net contribution to the public purse, less money.
So, should we make it an explicit aim to stop young people leaving Wales?
That doesn’t seem to be the prevailing opinion coming from Cardiff Bay at the moment. On the BBC’s “The Hour”, the Labour AM Dawn Bowden suggested that from her conversations in her Merthyr Tydfil constituency, she found that people want to leave Wales not out of a disillusionment with Welshness or a lack of national pride, but out of a desire to “see the world” and make the best of themselves. I don’t think any of us would criticise our friends who have left Wales for a lack of patriotism – the word hiraeth exists for a reason! The problem we have is that too many of our young people are forced to leave the country – the people who could have a hugely positive impact on the economic development of our country in the decades to come feel like they have to live elsewhere to reach their potential.
There will always be people who leave Wales – there are numerous “pull factors” in other cities; whether that’s amazing jobs only available in particular places, the lifestyle on offer elsewhere, or the chance to receive amazing training or education. Limiting these opportunities for Welsh people would be ultimately negative – but we need to make sure Wales is benefiting from the human capital accumulated by our diaspora too.
In recent weeks, there has been some strong criticism of the Welsh Government-funded “Seren Network”, which is a project aimed at encouraging and facilitating our brightest school pupils going to the best universities. Unfortunately, the majority of the universities that make the cut are outside of Wales. In fact, Cardiff University is the only Welsh university on the list. Is encouraging our brightest young people to leave Wales the best thing for our economy, and the country as a whole? Well, it’s complicated – I certainly wouldn’t want all Welsh people staying in Wales. We need to do more to celebrate Welsh success stories in science, art and socially-conscious entrepreneurship, and make sure our young people know that there are many people from their communities who have made huge contributions to Wales and the World. But we also need them to know that it is possible to succeed within those communities. An old mantra in Wales is that “to get on, you have to get out” – and we need to make sure that projects like the Seren Network, which can undoubtedly have a major positive effect, don’t contribute to them.
The Welsh Government launched the Seren Network in 2015 in response to a fall in the number of Welsh students applying to the Oxbridge universities. It came as a recommendation in a report by Paul Murphy, who blamed a lack of ambition among Welsh teachers for the falling numbers of applications, and a lack of “inside knowledge” on how to successfully apply to one of these prestigious institutions. Murphy said “I’m sure there’s lots of youngsters who would like to go but don’t know how to go about it”. If this is true, and there are lots of young Welsh students who are desperate to go to Oxbridge or other top universities but are held back by a lack of experience in Welsh schools, the project certainly makes sense. Whether aiming to funnel all high-achieving Welsh students into Oxbridge, or other far-removed institutions outside of Wales, is the best idea, is discussed by Plaid Ifanc’s Women’s Officer, Polly Manning, in her highly commended article “A World of Gap Years and Gilt-Frames” in Planet Magazine.
But even for those students who do “escape Wales” – it seems like a fundamental mistake for us to wave them off, take pride in their success, and let that be that. The Welsh Government is spending a significant amount of money on these students, even if they do leave Wales, and although making the university experience easier for students from the poorest part of the United Kingdom is a valid policy aim in and of itself, we need to make sure that the Welsh economy is not being harmed by such an initiative. Our students attending the best possible universities could easily be turned into a positive. The Seren Network exists at the moment as a way of ensuring that there are fewer barriers facing Welsh students when they apply to the best universities in the world – imagine if this was extended, to continue while these students were at the universities themselves.
As discussed earlier, the changing demographics of the population of Wales are a major concern.
In his report this year, the Chief Economist for the Welsh Government, Jonathan Price, said himself that the trends of demographic change could be a concern for the future. At the same time, another key objective of the Welsh Government over the last few years has been ensuring that the skill base in Wales is as high as possible. This seems like a perfect opportunity for the Seren Network to act as a link between the highly-skilled Welsh students at some of the best universities in the world, and the needs of indigenous Welsh businesses.
The Federation of Small Business in Wales has described the “missing middle” of our economy – we have a very high amount of people in micro-businesses, and the same for people working for multinational corporations. Growing the medium-sized Welsh businesses with roots in communities across Wales must be a crucial next stage in any economic development strategy for our nation.
The FSB found that ensuring that these businesses have access to highly-skilled individuals should be a core part of the Welsh Government’s strategy, and fortunately, the Seren Network seems like a great place to start! At university, students are constantly told of the importance of developing your CV with extra-curricular activities, whether that’s through gaining work experience or running a student society. If the Seren Network had the resources and remit to link these students with relevant opportunities at Welsh businesses, for internships during breaks in the academic calendar and for jobs after graduation, it could give Welsh students and businesses a major advantage.
The potential for the Seren Network to link Wales’ economic needs with our high-achieving young people doesn’t need to end there; Wales is in need of innovative, highly-skilled individuals in our civil service too, and the development of a centre of excellence for Welsh policy-makers linked to the Seren Network could also be of great benefit.
In addition, for too long our communities have relied on foreign direct investment and multinational corporations to provide the economic boost that our communities need – if the Seren Network can be a project and network that promotes the idea of socially-conscious and sustainable entrepreneurship to our high-achieving young people, our most deprived or peripheral communities could benefit greatly.
As students of STEM degrees and those who tend to earn higher salaries upon graduation are more likely to leave Wales, this could be particularly useful for encouraging these people to stay in Wales – but it could be used for a whole manner of degrees; from linking art students to relevant opportunities across Wales and for sport science students at Welsh clubs. It is important to note at this point that the brain drain is not solely an issue for Wales as a whole – Cardiff is itself acting as a major point of attraction for young people across Wales, and we need to make sure communities across the country, not only in the south, develop their resilience to internal UK migration and are attractive places to live and work for young people.
The Brain Drain is a phenomenon seen across the world, with high-achieving people seeking to move to the most economically prosperous places to, in their mind, meet their potential. A whole range of economic and other factors affect those individual decisions to either stay in Wales or find work elsewhere.
To help our economic development and the wellbeing of communities across Wales, we need to do more to match our high-achieving young people with the opportunities that already exist in this country, and improve the offer to stay and be the backbone of a well-educated and motivated population.
The Seren Network is a project funded by the Welsh Government for the specific aim of making sure young Welsh students are able to access the most respected universities in the world. Developing the ideas I mentioned in the previous paragraph would, of course, require a major upheaval in the aims of the organisation and the budget it is given by government. But it also requires a shift in thinking by the government as a whole. They talk themselves of the problem of the brain drain, but it will require direct intervention to create change.
Making every student study in Wales is not a healthy policy goal, in my view, but we can use existing projects like the Seren Network to market Wales as an excellent place to live and work, and to better utilise the skills of our high-achieving young people.
Paul Murphy said that he is sure that there are many young people in Wales who want to go to Oxbridge, but don’t know how to get through the application process. I am just as sure that there are many young Welsh people who live outside of the country who would love to come back, if they were given the opportunity to do so.
In addition, the 2011 WISERD research into internal UK migration suggested that “encouraging the Welsh-born to study and stay in Wales is more likely to have an impact on graduate retention rates than seeking to keep students who come to Wales to study, or to attract graduates who have no prior Welsh links”. Revolutionising the Seren Network to encourage and facilitate high-achieving Welsh students returning to Wales to contribute to our economic development could be a first step in a radical shift in Welsh Government policy development.
“A World of Gap Years and Gilt-Frames”– Polly Manning
Dawn Bowden on The Hour
Graduate Stats “consistent with a brain drain” – BBC Wales, 2017
Paul Murphy: Teachers “Lack Oxbridge Ambition”
The Seren Network: The Story So Far
“Wales’ Missing Middle” – Federation of Small Business Wales, 2017
Welsh Government Chief Economist Report 2018
Welsh Graduate Migration – Wiserd, 2011