Talent Migration

When it comes to talent migration, a worrying gap between policy and rhetoric is opening up. This gap can be most clearly perceived if we look at attempts by some countries to restrict the inflow of undocumented migrants and refugees, heated discussion of which has dominated the media landscape.

For instance, the US Supreme Court stated in September that it is legitimate to reject the applications of asylum seekers who did not ask for protection in the countries they crossed before entering the US. European countries have remained mostly silent with respect to the recent Turkish military intervention in northeastern Syria, so as not to put at risk the bilateral agreement signed in March 2016 to stop major inflows of refugees fleeing the armed conflict.

When it comes to talent migration, one might be tempted to take for granted that, while countries take forceful steps to hinder refugee flows, they still fight hard to attract ‘the best and the brightest’ among immigrants. However, actual opportunities for talent migration towards OECD countries might be worsening.

The sluggish improvement of labor market conditions after the 2008 crisis, and the concomitant rise of nativist political parties, is reinforcing the perception of immigration as a threat rather than as an opportunity. This was notably seen in the 2016 British referendum that led (or, at least, should have led) the UK to leave the European Union — immigration was one of the key domains in which the Leavers were pushing for taking back control.

More and more countries are endorsing a ‘fixed number of jobs’ view, where immigration leads, one-to-one, in a loss of employment opportunities for natives. In terms of talent migration, this entails taking a shorter-term view, according to which migrants are welcome only inasmuch as they contribute to fill existing vacancies, rather than selecting immigrants on the basis of their human capital. This latter approach (pioneered by Canada, timidly reproduced in Europe with the EU Blue Card initiative, and advocated for in the US) might result in a more difficult initial integration into the labor market, but it pays off in the long term.

Student visas represent an important gateway for talent migration. Completing tertiary education in a university of the recipient country can kill two birds with one stone: allowing the country to gain a better sense of the ability and productivity of an immigrant, and ensuring a better match between the human capital of the immigrant and what domestic firms need. But even this entry door for talent is progressively being restricted: the US has tightened the conditions under which foreign-born graduates of US universities can obtain a work visa and have progressively made life harder for Chinese students.

France has introduced, from this academic year, differential tuition fees for foreign-born (non-European) students. Even though the government has stepped back on an identical increase for PhD students, this change could still backfire in terms of lowering the quality of foreign-born students, whose ability to study abroad would be more closely related to their socio-economic conditions than to their ability.

It is not only talent that migrates, but that migration promotes talent, as experiences abroad are typically very effective in fostering one’s own skills and productivity. The worrying current trends will be hopefully short-lived, and countries will get closer to implementing their rhetoric of attracting the best and the brightest in the year to come.

Bloomberg. 2019. ‘Trump’s trade war targets Chinese students at Elite U.S. schools’. Time. June 4. https://time.com/5600299/donald-trump-china-trade-war-students/
Supreme Court of the United States. 2019. Barr v. East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/19a230_k53l.pdf
The New York Times. 2019. ‘France announces tough new measures on immigration’. November 6. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/world/europe/france-macron-immigration.html

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