Britain’s Brain Drain

As we approach our 400th birthday celebrations in 2015, The Perse is organising a series of alumni events.  Former Perse students are spread far and wide which is to be expected for a highly qualified and thus mobile group, living in a world of international employment opportunities and easy travel.    A disproportionately large number of our international alumni seem to have been very successful.  They include professors in Ivy League universities, surgeons in Hong Kong, Wall Street bankers, lawyers in the Far East, museum directors in New York and San Diego, and high tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.  Many talented alumni have left the UK in pursuit of some or all of: attractive employment opportunities, better university funding, lower taxes, less business regulation, warmer weather and personal happiness.    Nothing new here.  For hundreds of years talented young men and women have left the UK for ‘new world’ opportunities with rates of emigration rising and falling with the British economy.  Recessions encourage emigration: economic growth immigration.

Now the clouds are gathering for a perfect brain drain storm which could see the cream of Britain’s future leaving just when we need to retain our most talented youngsters.  What Britain requires are large numbers of hard working, talented, and skilled graduates to take charge of our industries, to run our public services, and to create the new technologies which will deliver future prosperity.  These will be the high income earners of tomorrow; the top 5% who provide almost half of the UK’s income tax receipts.

Unfortunately many such talented students have other ideas.  Put yourself in the Ugg boots or Nike trainers of a high flying eighteen year old.  The costs of attending a top British university have just tripled, and the average student debt on graduation is forecast to reach an eye-watering £53,000.  Paying off that level of debt will take years and almost certainly delay important milestones in life such as buying a first home and having children.  At the same time as paying more, there is a perception that students will get less from UK universities.  Britain has slipped to 40th out of 48 countries in a league table of government investment in higher education, and cuts are compromising the quality of teaching, student support, and library provision in some universities.

Regrettably it doesn’t end here.  If you are a top student from an independent school some admission tutors may discriminate against you as they struggle to meet recruitment quotas for underrepresented groups.  Even if you get a place in a top British university you will be wondering whether all the costs and effort will be worth it.  With UK unemployment forecast to carry on rising until 2016 and peak at 10.6%, the job market for British graduates will remain challenging.  You can almost see students doing the life cycle maths.  Graduate at 21, take three years to find a decent permanent job, clear student debts by 40 and then start saving for a very late retirement.  It is not an attractive proposition.

Eighteen to thirty year olds have always had itchy feet.  They want to explore the world and make their fortunes.  They understand that international experience aids employment in a globalised world, and they know that with scholarships and bursaries university study in the USA, Canada and Australia is no more expensive that a British degree.  They are part of the Skype generation who use technology to keep in touch with friends and family wherever they are.  They are footloose and mobile and want to be where the economic and cultural action is; in North America, the Middle East, and the Pacific.  Chuck in the damp and grey British weather and you have all the ingredients for the perfect brain drain storm.  The clouds are already gathering.  In leading schools across the country newly appointed overseas university advisors are helping our best sixth formers to gain places to study abroad.  Many of these students will never return; their talents and tax paying abilities lost forever.  The number of overseas alumni is set to grow further and Britain will be poorer without them.

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