The European Union – A free market in minds?

In his alluringly titled 2010 book, The Great Brain Race, author and former journalist Ben Wildavsky made the case for how and why global universities were reshaping the world.

The book was written before MOOCs hit the headlines, promising a new globalised dimension.

But the structures that have already made some universities global beacons were already in place: the spread of reputational university league tables, greater possibilities for academic mobility, the acceptability of universities seeking to make a profit, and the marketing that makes the marketers themselves say that the brightest foreign students are not choosing between the US and the UK but between Yale and Cambridge.

For Wildavsky this is a move towards a free market in minds, and so part of a beneficial trend. It sustains the modern knowledge economy and will ultimately help restore global prosperity.

But the new European Commission proposal to recast the law on international student and researcher mobility, featured recently in University World News, is evidence that barriers to free trade in minds from outside the European Union (EU) will not fall any time soon, if ever.

The politics of immigration trump the politics of educational ambitions.

The EU draft directive is, significantly, presented jointly by the commissioners concerned with immigration and with education.

The aim is to iron out some of the bumps along the road for international (non-EU) applicants seeking visas and residence permits in EU countries. With the UK, Ireland (and Denmark) opted out, there are currently around 300,000 non-EU students in 24 countries.

The draft law has months of negotiations ahead of it. It is likely to be 2016 before the draft has completed its route through the EU Council and the European Parliament, and it then has to be transposed into national law before its measures become effective.

The case of China

Evidence from elsewhere tends to suggest that easier free movement is necessary, but not sufficient, to produce the benefits – for universities or enterprises – for which the EU hopes.

I’ve recently been reading some work on China’s strategies with regard to the students that the state finances to go west and the incentives to get them to return.

There is now a focus on the role of returnees. Their contribution to Chinese postdoctoral clusters has been crucial to the way that technical and managerial experience gained from study abroad is transferred and rethought for the benefit of universities and enterprises alike.

As a 2010 report for the World Bank by Wieping Wu underlined, technology absorption is not simply a process of copying what has been learned abroad, but rather of considerable additional work, to help adapt ideas to a different environment and to assimilate them for commercial production. That needs the skills of those able to work in two cultures.

But while China is putting a lot of effort into a policy to attract back its ‘sea turtles’, as the Chinese call returnees from study abroad, and ‘seagulls’ – that is, those who continue to fly between different destinations – the situation in Europe as a collection of states is more complex in any assessment of national as opposed to collective European benefit.

Europe’s free trade in bright minds

Europe’s free trade in bright minds is, in theory, set for a boost under the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy and the Erasmus for All programme, and continuing efforts under the Bologna process.

But mobility patterns continue to vary significantly between countries, and some EU countries actually discourage mobility, making for winners and losers.

On the research side, the generous and highly competitive research grants of the European Research Council confirm this pattern of winners and losers. In a recent study, Pedro Teixeira shows that relatively few researchers from the universities of eastern and central Europe, and even southern Europe, gain these grants.

The trend is accentuated by the fact those who win the grants are free to choose the location in which they wish to work. The research strengths of the strong countries (the UK, Germany, Switzerland) are boosted still further by the fact that grant holders flock to them from their home country.

This makes sense in terms of research concentration and intellectual stimulus. But doesn’t freeing up the ‘market of minds’ within the EU also need some equivalent of China’s ‘sea turtle’ and seagull’ policy?

* Anne Corbett is a visiting fellow in the European Institute at the London School of Economics. Her latest publication is “Governing Education, Governing Europe? Strengths and weaknesses of the Lisbon model”, in Sisyphus – Journal of Education of the Institute of Education, University of Lisbon, Volume 1, issue 1, 2013. Email: Pedro Teixeira’s paper, “The Tortuous Ways of the Market: Looking at the European integration of higher education from an economic perspective”, is published in the London School of Economics’ Europe in Question paper series LEQS 56/2013.