Rethinking our ‘brain drain’

Canada is in fact a substantial importer of skilled labour, primarily from developing countries.


I remember that when I was going through high school, the ‘brain drain’ panic was at its peak. Word on the street was anyone who had even a couple of university courses was heading south as fast as Air Canada could get them there, and people with graduate degrees were more endangered than the beluga whales in the St. Lawrence.

You don’t hear so much about it these days, and maybe it’s not just because we can brag about the Perimeter Institute. Today, I stumbled across a report (hat tip: Chris Blattman) which indicates that Canada imported some 16,000 PhD’s over the 2001-2006 period, largely from Asia. Conversely, our nation’s universities produced some 20,000 doctorates over the same period – one quarter of which were foreign nationals.

So, even if every single Canadian-born PhD left for the States after graduation (though the last link indicates only 18% do), Canada would still be a net importer of doctorates. As of right now, we import thousands more highly educated people every year than we export. This is hardly a brain drain.

We owe this in large part to our progressive immigration system, which accepts more entrants per capita than most anywhere else in the world. We were also the first to adopt points-based immigration procedures, which were rolled out in 1967. The fruits of these policies are easy to point to, one oft-mentioned example being Microsoft setting up in B.C. last year specifically because they couldn’t bring skilled workers into the States.

Remember, there are gains from trade in labour, just like there are gains from trade in goods.

Final point. North American graduate education and Asian graduate education are not identical. However, without evidence to evaluate whether PhDs earned in Korea or wherever are worth more or less than ones in Canada, it’s hard to draw any further conclusions that aren’t pure value judgments, so I’ll leave it there. G’night.

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Rethinking our ‘brain drain’

  1. You make a good point, but I would argue that a truly progressive immigration system would be one that lets in more people without PhDs. It’s very easy to be a pro-immigration nation when you don’t share a border with a poor country. Canadians pat themselves on the back for their enlightenment, but I would still like to see more unskilled workers and refugees allowed entry.

  2. That’s a good point. Canada has too many unemployed PhD’s, but lacks construction workers (who I wouldn’t necessary classify as “unskilled” — hell, they make houses: my highest ambition is to be able to be as useful as that with a PhD).

  3. Pingback: Concentrated knowledge « Ester’s Blog

  4. hmm… the current main page of yahoo.ca has a brings a related report:

    “Immigrants get the snub? Despite earning Canadian degrees, many don’t get jobs”

    It’s about university education in general, and not just PhD’s, but it still raises the interesting questions of what all of we foreigners are able to do with our degrees here in Canada.

    For full story, check:


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