Brain circulation: the promotion of a fair deal

Promoting a fair circulation of talents

One of the strategic priorities of the European Research Area (ERA) is to strengthen the mobility of researchers and the flow of knowledge. But how is it done in a concrete manner? And what is the current status quo?

We know that attracting researchers, talents or, in other words, the “best and the brightest” is a major concern in all European countries. However, not all are equally successful. This is mainly explained by the fact that the Member States do not have the same ability to attract talents – a situation which, ultimately, produces an unbalanced growth.

Concretely, this means that the benefits of mobility are unevenly distributed across the EU (asymmetric mobility) and there is a risk that the gap will widen if no corrective action is taken.

Understanding PhD mobility across Europe

Empirical research shows that the number of foreign doctoral candidates entering and leaving a country (inflow and outflow) represents a reliable way to measure a country’s attractiveness – usually over a period of one year.

Countries with strong research capacities, notably the UK, tend to experience higher levels of net gain – meaning they have more incoming doctoral candidates than outgoing – while other countries, with less mature research infrastructures, struggle to compete.

In a broad sense, it means that, although the European Union globally acts as a “magnet for talents”, in practice, the geographical position of the Member States within the EU matters.  To address these structural inequalities innovative policies are very much needed.

On which basis PhD candidates choose their university?

PhD candidates consider several factors before choosing their future university. In general, we observe two main groups:

  • Group 1: employment-related and earning criteria.
  • Group 2: non-monetary or more ‘subtle’ criteria.

The criteria included in both groups are then, of course, affected by personal motivations and perceptions.

Group #1 Employment and earning criteria

The first cluster includes the strongest and well-known drivers of mobility, and explain, for example, why the greatest ambition of most researchers is to spend some time in one of the 24 Russell Group universities:

  • Prestige/reputation of the higher education institutions and research infrastructures.
  • Staff expertise in the field and academic standards.
  • Higher funds/salary levels.

Group #2 Non-monetary criteria

The second cluster includes a set of practices indirectly linked to mobility but yet shaping – or at least influencing – mobility choices. While some of them are quite predictable, others might be less intuitive.

They range from the ability to recognise and enhance differences to the promotion of favourable conditions. The below list of the most common criteria can help all higher education institutions to identify areas of improvement and in turn, become more attractive.

  • Support PhD candidates in overcoming language or cultural barriers, e.g., teaching the local language while giving courses and exams in English. This point also includes practical help to speed up the bureaucracy.
  • Invest in the promotion of the city in which the university is based and its living conditions. Focus, e.g., on the lower cost of living, affordable tuition fees, geographical, natural, historical beauty.
  • Encourage the cooperation with international partners and foster the mobility of early-stage researchers and academics across Europe (e.g., through the participation in Erasmus+ Key Actions 2).
  • Help PhD candidates widen their networks and promote their career development, e.g., through the acquisition of transferable skills. Interesting EU-funded projects, such as PhD Hub or DocEnhance help universities professionalise PhD training.
  • Include paid internships.
  • Open-up to non-EU countries (cooperation agreement), relying on existing relationships and linguistic affinity. To that end, ensuring the recognition of qualifications is essential (e.g., diplomas, certificates).

Are you ready to attract more talents? 

To sum-up, the Member States face a series of different challenges in attracting PhD candidates, as they operate in different national contexts. In this regard, it is perhaps worth pointing out that:

  • Education is an area of competence of the Member States the EU can only support and coordinate their action ­(supporting competence).
  • The EU and the Member States have shared competences in the field of research.

That said, providing the right framework to support the relocation of PhD candidates is key in influencing their mobility choices.

A final remark needs to be made at this point. Not all the conditions mentioned in the paragraph above will eventually contribute to the retention of PhD graduates. For example, English-taught courses might have a negative long-term impact, slowing down the capacity of early-stage researchers to integrate into the local labour market. For this reason it is worth stating it again favourable conditions are not enough alone, but need to be combined with policy interventions.

(Picture credits: Source: Emily Ranquist via Pexels)