2004 Policy Paper “Brain mobility”

Share it:


ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe has existed since 1982 to promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level, and towards all revelant organisations and instituions. ESIB currently has 50 member organisations from 37 countries.



The phenomenon of brain mobility is one which first started out as a natural consequence of the physical movement of people, for a number of personal, historical, geographical, political and social reasons. Opportunities for the mobility of persons have consistently increased, in such a way that we now evidence a more elaborate concept of brain mobility. Nowadays, brain mobility also occurs due to deliberate efforts by relevant authorities, in their attempt to create and shape areas of knowledge, or otherwise. Brain mobility in turn results in either brain gain or brain drain, and in this respect inevitably has an impact on higher education. Stakeholders in higher education are contributing to this discussion and formulating policy in this area, addressing this issue in such a way that, in many cases, seeks to enhance brain mobility.

Students are to address the phenomenon of brain mobility on many levels, ranging from brain mobility between different localities or regions to different countries and regions of the world.

So far, ESIB has promoted the positive implications of student mobility. This statement goes a step further, addressing the issue of brain mobility between regions, countries and continents in terms of skilled individuals, and the negative and positive implications thereof.



The term ‘brain mobility’ refers to the movement of skilled individuals, these being persons who carry knowledge. Brain mobility implies an increase or decrease in the number of these persons. The former is referred to as ‘brain gain’, and the latter as ‘brain drain’. Brain mobility does not refer to the mobility of people in general, but to the mobility of those people who are skilled individuals, as defined below.

Policies and discussions on brain mobility are mostly treated with respect to three types of skilled individuals, these being students, researchers and skilled labourers. It is important to note that this is not to the exclusion of other individuals, since it is not possible to identify an exhaustive list of ‘skilled individuals.’ These three types of individuals are however seen as being central to the issue of brain mobility.

ESIB stresses the importance of mobility as a key element in the process of internationalisation of higher education and vocational training and recognises the
positive consequences of such mobility, from all aspects, ranging from individual to international aspects.

The mobility of students is the most basic exercise of brain mobility in the sense that it provides a non-local perspective to one’s knowledge during the very process in which such knowledge is being acquired.

On the other hand, mobility of this sort can be a major contributory factor to the gain or loss of skilled individuals, particularly where such individuals choose to remain resident in the area or country where they have taken up their studies or vocational training.

Mobility for the purpose of research is an even greater contributory factor to brain mobility. This is because research results, being the knowledge acquired through such research, are kept by envisaged beneficiaries. Where the beneficiaries thereof are concentrated in a particular area, this is an explicit exercise of brain gain. This has a negative effect on other areas, in particular the areas from which researchers originate, and from where knowledge can be said to have been lost.
Skilled Labourers

The mobility of skilled labourers has an immediate effect, translating itself into brain gain for those areas in which there evolves a concentration of skilled labourers, and conversely brain drain in those areas from where migration of skilled labourers takes place.


Reasons for Brain Mobility

The reasons for which skilled individuals are mobile can be many. Individual choices can be made freely. Personal incentives for mobility range from curiosity, to professional and academic fulfilment, the mobility of credentials, family strategies and personal reasons.

From a societal perspective, different so-called push and pull factors that increase brain mobility can be identified. Push factors may include, among others, the lack of freedom of research, the lack of a good welfare system, a polarised society or a low capacity in higher education or the labour market. Pull factors may include, among others, well-funded scholarships for academics, good career opportunities, a stable society or a high level of freedom of research. Both of these factors can lead to situations where brain mobility is enforced. ESIB stresses that efforts should take place in order to reduce forced mobility, and criticises regions which try to take advantage of such situations in order to attain a high level of brain gain.

From a political perspective several international processes can be identified that influence the direction and extent of brain mobility. Among others, the Lisbon objectives and the General Agreement of Trade in Services might create push and pull factors and therefore need further intensive observation.


The Effects of Brain Mobility

In general, the mobility of skilled individuals is negative where it results in the loss of a number of skilled individuals from a particular area. Brain mobility, however, is a phenomenon that has both positive and negative effects.

The loss of a large number of skilled individuals has negative effects in terms of desired qualitative and sustainable development of education, particularly where there is the loss of teaching staff or researchers from particular areas.

Brain mobility is negative where it implies a loss in intellectual contribution to society, particularly in terms of democratic and nation-building efforts and the attainment of development goals. Conversely, in intellectual terms, short-term mobility of skilled individuals can be said to be beneficial to one’s place of origin. This occurs particularly where the purpose of such mobility is to contribute, in a better-informed manner, to higher education, or to society in general.

Brain mobility further implies a loss in the economic contribution that skilled individuals are able to make to the social or taxation systems of their place of origin. Conversely, brain mobility could imply an improvement in economic terms, not only with respect to the place to which skilled individuals choose to emigrate, but also with respect to one’s place of origin. The latter occurs particularly where financial gain made from one’s activity in another place is used for certain purposes in one’s country of origin, such as the maintenance of relatives, investment or entrepreneurship.

Brain mobility is particularly harmful in cases where a public investment has been made in higher education, and such investment is then lost due to the migration of graduates from their place of origin. Furthermore, brain mobility is also negative where there is the migration of a particular sector of society, whether this is a broad sector, such as the migration of a large number of youths, or a more restricted one, such as the migration of academics, professionals or skilled labourers from particular fields.


General Principles in Dealing with Brain Mobility

Brain mobility is not to be treated only from the aspect of brain gain and efforts should be made in order to reduce the negative effects of brain mobility. In this respect, the responsibility does not only lie with national governments, in the formulation of policies on brain mobility and in their attitude towards this phenomenon, but also with national and international stakeholders in terms of higher education and societal development.
Balanced Mobility

ESIB stresses the importance of balanced mobility, both in terms of movement, and in terms of the fields of study, research or labour affected by such mobility.
Intellectual vs. Economic Considerations

In most cases, knowledge is measured in economic terms, and brain mobility inevitably comes to be considered in such context. ESIB believes in the importance of treating people in terms of their intellectual capacity and contribution, rather than in terms of their economic potential, attainment or contribution.

ESIB opposes policies which aim to reduce social and salary conditions for skilled individuals to such a low level that potential domestic candidates come to be replaced by individuals from less-developed regions who would be prepared to work under domestically unacceptable conditions.

Furthermore, it is important to stress that brain gain which is driven strictly in economic terms implies a very selfish exercise of brain mobility and is potentially detrimental to the political and economic future of the actor exercising such brain gain.
Brain waste

There are obvious negative implications in brain waste which occurs due to forced mobility, meaning that skilled individuals are forced to take up employment, outside their country of origin, which requires lower qualifications than they actually have. This can also arise due to lack of recognition of qualifications. ESIB believes that efforts should be undertaken to seek the prevention of brain waste.
Knowledge Sharing

ESIB encourages the sharing of knowledge between different higher education institutions, countries and regions.

In this respect, ESIB encourages the maintenance of links with migrants and the drawing up of bilateral or multilateral agreements providing for brain mobility, in order to treat the issue in a more relevant and specific manner;
Capacity Building

ESIB believes in the importance of encouraging and helping with capacity building in higher education and the labour market. It should be noted that it is only a combination of the two that can reduce the negative effects of brain mobility. This should especially aim at countries or regions which are low on knowledge resources and which have a low capacity to attract skilled individuals.

In this respect, ESIB stresses the importance of being sensitive to the situation of such countries or regions, so as not to cause any further damage. ESIB strongly opposes the use of an unfavourable situation as an excuse to attract skilled individuals, under the guise of providing help to such disadvantaged countries or regions.

ESIB stresses the importance of qualitative research, and discourages the upsetting of such research for the purpose of attaining economic aims. ESIB further stresses that research organisations, be these higher education institutions, foundations, research centres, laboratories, private firms, international organisations or nongovernmental organisations, have a duty to uphold the intrinsic values of research, and to avoid the sole aim of brain gain.

Furthermore, ESIB encourages beneficiaries of cross-border research to be more sensitive towards the threat of brain drain to the researchers’ place of origin. This can be done, for instance, by the drawing up of agreements or cooperation projects, in order to share research results, or to distribute the financial gain generated through the publication and use of such results.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

With the increased importance and efficiency of ICT, ESIB encourages that the mobility of knowledge, whether wholly or partly, be made possible by electronic means, so that the presence of skilled individuals is not necessarily a prerequisite for the portability of knowledge.
Rights, Access and Residence

ESIB strongly opposes the exploitation of migrants and the corruption of the aims of their activity outside their place of origin, be it to study, carry out research, work, or otherwise.

ESIB stresses the necessity of the observance of the rights and freedoms of such migrants.

ESIB believes that conditions for access or residence should be flexible, and that restrictive residency rights should not be imposed under the guise of receivers’ supposed concern for brain drain from the migrants’ place of origin.

ESIB stresses upon the importance of non-discrimination between what are considered to be ‘unskilled,’ as opposed to ‘skilled,’ migrants.

ESIB also stresses that the marketing of study programmes, research and labour for migrants is to be genuine. In this respect, the priority should be an investment in the improvement of the conditions for such migrants, and the quality of programmes, research or labour, rather than in the marketing thereof.

ESIB further stresses the importance of transparency of mobility procedures, and of putting into place mechanisms whereby the receivers of migrants for a specific purpose report back on the activity carried out by such migrants.

Furthermore, ESIB encourages the possibility of further opportunities for mobility from the receiving area, in order to enhance the relevance of migrants’ activities, as well as personal fulfilment.

ESIB stresses the importance of a good policy for the reintegration of skilled migrants, following a term of migration. Particularly from the perspective of the receiver of skilled migrants, ESIB stresses the importance that such reintegration not be driven by the sole motivation that the assigned activity of such skilled individuals was completed, but by the genuine concern of the threat of brain drain to such individuals’ place of origin.


Europe and Brain Mobility

With the development and implementation of the Bologna Process, ESIB believes in the importance of the openness of which access becomes limited due to heavy conditions or restrictions.

ESIB encourages countries within the EHEA to foster an unselfish attitude towards brain mobility. It is important for such countries to divert their focus from a strictly national or European perspective, to a more constructive attitude of balanced mobility in a global context.

With the creation of the Lisbon Objectives and the European Research Area (ERA), the European Union (EU) set itself a number of qualitative as well as quantitative tasks, to be achieved by 2010. ESIB encourages Community efforts, and EU member States to focus on social coherence and sustainability, rather than brain gain, in order to fulfil these goals.

ESIB encourages European countries to assess the implications of interaction and cooperation between EU and non-EU member states, in terms of brain mobility, and to address the above-mentioned issues and considerations when doing so. This is an absolute necessity in terms of development aid.

ESIB stresses the importance of a continued commitment to higher education. ESIB believes that the main priority should always be the development of higher education, in a qualitative, social and sustainable manner and opposes the use of brain mobility as a substitute thereto.


Adopted at the 47th Board Meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, November 2004


We make sure you
don't miss any news
Skip to content