Helen Martin: Graduate brain drain is mischievous twaddle

FEARS of a “brain drain” have been raised following the release of statistics that showed the number of graduates from Scottish universities who left to take up posts in the rest of the UK or abroad had risen by around a thousand in 2009-10 compared to the previous year.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 17th October 2011, 1:06 pm

The Tories in particular got their knickers in a twist, along with a commentator or two from the folks who make a living recruiting graduates.

They said the figures were “very worrying” and that Scotland was losing “top talent”.

I sincerely hope no-one pays any attention at all to this twaddle, which seems like a mischievous attempt to make us feel vulnerable.

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To put it in perspective, set the thousand or so who left against the 19,438 who stayed on and found permanent work here last year.

The fact is that the figures are meaningless anyway. Within the next few years when the tuition fees kick in, we will have a much more accurate picture, not least because there is a greater chance the people we are talking about will actually be Scots, or at least live in Scotland to start with.

Anyone who lives in Edinburgh – or St Andrews – knows there are many students who may study and graduate here but never, in their wildest dreams, had any intention of working here once they got their degree.

You could argue that in the past at least (pre-fees) we were very successful at marketing our academic institutions. People came from all over the world for the prestige of graduating from Edinburgh, with the dream of taking their skills back to their own countries where they are needed.

Others flooded in from elsewhere in the UK for a number of reasons... because they didn’t get into Oxbridge (and Edin-drews offered a classy, reputable alternative), because they wanted to enjoy their student life as far from home as possible, or because Prince William made it fashionable.

Unlike their counterparts in other cities who scrape by eating foul, cheap concoctions primarily composed of beans and struggle with the rent, many incoming Edin-drews undergraduates live in rather posh New Town flats and are excited by being so close to Harvey Nics; or they inhabit quaint and elegantly furnished Fife townhouses and maintain the dreams and income of Fife restaurateurs.

I’m not being horrible about our plethora of “posh” students. I may find the shrieking “Ya” accent a little irritating at times – especially when it’s fuelled by a few champagne cocktails – but it doesn’t make someone a bad person. They are paying rent, spending in the local economy and we would be poorer without them. Fortunately, they can probably afford the new fees and will still come.

And so to the Prince factor. There is a certain group of gels who come here to study fine art or some other esoteric whimsy, but already have a job in a London gallery in mind prior to nabbing themselves a well-heeled, preferably aristocratic, husband. The only remote possibility of them deciding to stay in Scotland is if they meet fellow student Farquhar Deerstalker Huntington-MacDonald who happens to have a title in the offing, a large estate in the Highlands and a little flat in Knightsbridge or Mayfair. So stuff the gallery job. Stuff any job, come to that.

Then there are those students who, whether they are Scottish or not, are studying subjects for which there is no real jobs market here anyway. Like the Darien Scheme – when 17th-century Scottish traders attempted to flog wigs, bibles and woolly socks in Panama – in reverse, if you have a passion for tropical marine biology, you won’t find too many openings down the Scottish job centre. There are certain degrees which almost automatically lead to working overseas.

Added to all that, Scotland is, after all, a comparatively small country. Out of 62 million people in the UK, only 5.2m live in Scotland. We need fewer of most things, so popular courses such as veterinary science, in which Scotland has a particularly fine reputation, will almost certainly produce too many graduates for our domestic needs. And in the current environment, we appear to be awash with legal graduates who can’t find jobs.

The number of graduates from Scottish universities leaving to work elsewhere is not “worrying”; it is highly predictable and perfectly satisfactory. When it comes to attracting students, we punch above our weight. Nor can we possibly be experiencing a brain drain because if anything, the UK as a whole has far too many people doing degrees and applying for jobs that would once have been taken by someone with a couple of O Grades and those old-fashioned qualities of common sense and empathy rather than a string of letters after their name.