International mobility of the highly skilled

Rationale and objectives

The international mobility of highly skilled individuals plays an important role in shaping national innovation systems. It is widely acknowledged that mobile talent contributes to the creation and diffusion of knowledge, particularly tacit knowledge as it is often shared through direct personal interactions (OECD, 2001, 2008 and 2010). Business and academia seek out abroad for specific knowledge or abilities or for drawing upon an expanded pool of talents. They also create or integrate international knowledge networks through their foreign staff. For talented individuals, mobility provides a means to exploit opportunities abroad, overcome barriers and resource constraints experienced at home, and fulfil their vocations. 

The world economy has witnessed a steady increase in the global flows of highly qualified individuals, students, scientists and engineers over the past two decades, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of total flows (Freeman, 2010; Docquier and Rapoport, 2012). Economic (e.g. costs of international flights), technological (e.g. the spread of the Internet and social media to maintain contacts across borders) and cultural (e.g. use of English as a common working and teaching language) factors have contributed to making international mobility substantially more affordable and less irreversible than in the past. In 2010‑11, there were 35 million migrants with tertiary education entering the OECD area; their number increased by 70% in the past decade, compared with an increasing of total numbers of 38% (Arslan et al., 2014).

While they account for a small share of world population, international migrants have a disproportionate impact on economic and science and innovation systems. Recent migrants are more educated than those who emigrated earlier. This is by and large a consequence of the expansion in higher education witnessed worldwide (see also the Policy Profile on the Internationalisation of Universities and Public Research). International mobility is particularly marked among tertiary-level students and at upper levels of tertiary education. During 2005-12, the number of foreign tertiary students enrolled worldwide increased by 50% (OECD, 2015a). In 2013, international students accounted for nearly a quarter of all students enrolled in OECD doctoral or equivalent programmes, against an average of 9% in all levels of tertiary education (Figure 1) (OECD, 2015b). Although their proportion in doctoral programmes varies considerably across countries, partly owing to geographical location or language, it is significant everywhere. For the majority of countries with available data, the proportion of foreign nationals in doctoral programmes actually increased between 2005 and 2013.

International migrants shape skilled labour forces. Foreign skilled workers are more overrepresented than in the past in the active working age group of 25-64. There is already evidence of massive inflows of foreign talents in specific professions and countries. For example, skilled migrants from Asia have been playing a critical role in bridging the skills gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in the OECD area. Foreign-born doctors and nurses account for a significant and growing share of the healthcare professionals working in the OECD area (OECD, 2015b).

Governments have encouraged international recruitment as to address expected pressures on health and healthcare services, as both population (demand) and medical and nursing workforce (supply) age. In fact, inflows of migrant workers will be an important factor to mitigate ageing in most OECD economies (Westmore, 2014) (see also the chapter on “Megatrends for STI”).

International migrants also appear to have a positive effect on entrepreneurship and innovation. They are more likely to create firms, tend to file more patents, publish more research articles and are more inclined to commercialise and license research results (OECD, 2014). Patent data suggest that 10% of inventorsworldwide showed a migratory background in 2005 (Miguélez and Fink, 2013). Bibliometrics data show that, although large differences are noticeable across countries, mobile scientists tend to have also higher impact in publishing (Figure 2). “Stayers” who are less exposed to leading scientists and institutions tend to publish in journals with lower average citation impacts (OECD, 2013a). A lack of mobility could be a drag on the scientific performance of an individual, institution and country.

From an individual perspective, benefits of international mobility are many fold: opportunities for better pay, career advancement, working with “star scientists” or in prestigious institutions and accessing the associated social networks, accessing higher quality research facilities, increased autonomy, benefiting from more transparent systems of recruitment and reward, and freedom to debate etc. (OECD, 2008).

Global competition for talent has increased reflecting the selective nature of migration, i.e. the propensity of the more skilled or more highly educated to be more mobile. Integrating international open networks and attracting foreign talents have become strategic to capture knowledge flows and effectively reduce skills scarcities. This is particularly true for the smaller or lower-income countries. The global landscape of international STI migrations has therefore been more complex. Growing policy attention has been paid worldwide to offer the most attractive conditions, and more and more OECD and non-OECD economies have increased policy support to inward, outward and return migrations. Whereas global migration flows of highly skilled have long originated from Asia, and to a lesser extent from Africa and Latin America, towards the OECD area, more recently, growing numbers of migrants have inflated South-South migration flows, reflecting the polarisation and South-East shift of STI activities (OECD, 2014).

Although policy plays a lesser role in influencing choices related to lifestyle and family, policy action can reduce political, technical and legal barriers to mobility in areas such as immigration legislation, administrative obstacles or language barriers (OECD, 2008). Likewise, potential rigidities in the labour market can discourage cross-border mobility. Data from the OECD/UNESCO/Eurostat study on doctorate holders show some significant and unexpected gaps between international mobility and income, the former being associated with lower earnings in a number of countries (Auriol et al., 2013). Similarly, the ability of innovative businesses to tap into foreign labour will be affected by the costs of hiring and firing associated with employing foreigners (IPP, 2016a).

International mobility of talent has long been seen as a competitive process in which one side’s win (brain gain) is another’s loss (brain drain). More recent considerations on brain circulation have helped reframe the debate and give a more nuanced view on the circularity of knowledge flows. Some recent findings show a strong relationship between scientist and student flows, with individuals going to a country to study and then moving back to the original country (Appelt et al., 2015). This suggests brain circulation takes place within wide complex networks of mobile highly educated and skilled individuals and provides rationale for early international training and the design of STI migration policies in a collaborative approach. 

Major aspects and instruments

Public policies can play an important role in stimulating the demand for and supply of internationally mobile talents. Indeed, mobility can be positively influenced by convergence in better economic conditions, lower regulatory restrictions, including immigration visa-related restrictions, and more attractive STI environment, for instance due to larger resources or higher quality capacity available. Past evidence suggested that some distinction should be made between the incentives for migration in general and the particular incentives dedicated to STI talents. While general migration has strong economic incentives, and often moves in conjunction with countries’ relative economic performance, STI mobility has additional, and complex, aspects relating to research opportunities, work conditions, and access to infrastructure (OECD, 2008). In addition the reasons for moving abroad may differ according to the profession and the type of work (Mahroum, 2001). Engineers and technicians seem to be attracted by salary and labour market conditions, whereas researchers and scientists are motivated by the nature of the work and the research environment, including the prestige of the institution.

Consequently, major policy initiatives to foster international mobility focus on building attractive ecosystems and offering favourable working and living conditions for mobile talents on the one hand, and targeting particular individuals for their specific or potential abilities, on the other hand. A broad range of policy instruments could be mobilised, ranging from horizontal schemes aiming to reinforce the overall attractiveness of STI ecosystems, to more focused initiatives aiming to improve capacity of STI actors (universities, public research institutes or firms) to connect to global knowledge networks and host international talents, to targeted programmes to migrants themselves (Table 1). Policies may offer incentives to attract and retain highly-skilled foreigners, and incentives to encourage mobility and return of national talents. In practice, both types of incentives can also be closely entrenched.

Various factors contribute to reinforce the overall attractiveness of STI systems, including national public research capacity, access to world-class infrastructures and knowledge platforms, funding available and better working conditions in STI careers (see the Policy Profiles on Public research missions and orientation, on Financing Public Research and on Research careers). Most publicly-funded research programmes have actually a component of international mobility and are designed to support mobility costs.

In some countries international mobility of researchers and highly skilled is raised as a national priority. Ireland just released its Innovation 2020 strategy that aims to ensure a continued inflow of top research talent. In Austria the National Strategy for Research, Technology and Development encourages the immigration of highly qualified scientists. The Colombian National Development Plan provides guidelines for international mobility and proposes the creation of a programme of internships and work exchanges to attract highly qualified staff to the country, especially to its least developed regions. Within its new Operational Programme Research, Development and Education (2014-20), the Czech Republic encourages larger inflows of students, teachers, academics and research, technical and administrative staff. Slovenia also intended through its medium-term National Programme for Higher Education to increase inward student mobility by facilitating teaching in foreign languages.

Reflecting the large contribution of international students to STI migration flows and their future role in labour force, policy action has been taken in many countries to encourage the internationalisation of universities and higher education (see the Policy Profiles on the Internationalisation of Universities and Public Research and Cross-border Arrangements for S&T). Several countries have revised their governance arrangements to support further internationalisation of higher education, e.g. by adopting dedicated national strategy or integrating internationalisation criteria into universities’ performance agreements. Double degrees, foreign campus, massive open online courses (MOOCs), new admission rules for foreign students, or the revision of curriculum to encourage teaching in foreign languages are various policy initiatives recently observed in OECD and non-OECD economies. In addition financial support has been provided to universities and public research institutes to increase participation in international R&D projects (e.g. EU Horizon 2020) and fund internationalisation activities, including travel costs (e.g. New Zealand Catalyst Fund). Non-financial support is provided through promotion activities (e.g. information campaigns abroad), training and networking services (e.g. information portal), or support on how to participate in international research programmes (e.g. national contact for H2020). Another channel for promoting international migration is the research and education agreements that countries or institutions conclude on bilateral or multilateral basis.

Governments adopt immigration policy-oriented approaches to ease entry of knowledge workers and simplify visa procedures. While restrictive immigration and visa policies have obvious negative effects on the inflows of workers, generic visa restrictions that apply to short term visits can hinder the most basic forms of collaborations. Some countries have reformed their immigration laws and introduced special amendments to favour highly skilled individuals. The European Union Blue Card Directive provides a favourable framework for the admission of skilled and educated migrants to the EU and the Scientific Visa Package facilitates the procedure of admitting non EU researchers into the EU area for the purpose of scientific research.

Recognition of foreign qualifications and diplomas also aims to facilitate international migrations. Educational accreditation standards and information play an important role in removing barriers for mobility and supporting the global market for advanced skills. International co-operation in this field is essential, e.g. the Bologna Process in the European Union.