At least we’ve got the brains to drain

If you have ever thought about packing your bags and heading for foreign shores to start a new life, it seems you are not alone.

A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), widely reported in the national press this week, suggests that Britons are leaving the UK in record numbers and in proportions far higher than is the case for comparable countries.

Many of those departing are apparently among the most qualified and skilled members of society, with engineers and scientists prominent in an exodus that has inevitably been dubbed ‘the new brain drain’.

Just as inevitably, the OECD’s findings have been dragged into a wider debate about the nature of UK society, with the implication that a nation that is losing its brightest and best in such large numbers is one that is in a good measure of trouble.

Under this doomsday scenario, you can take your pick from an extensive menu of factors that are supposedly driving people out of the UK by the thousands. The list includes everything from the weather and traffic congestion to high taxes, high crime and fear of MRSA if you have to go into hospital.

Now, it is entirely possible that all the above play their part, but it seems unlikely that queues on the M25 and hoodies by the bus shelter are the main reasons that highly trained, highly qualified engineers and technologists are leaving to work abroad.

They are doing so because they have skills that are in demand, for which people are prepared to pay and which allow them to secure good jobs.

It is worth making the point here that the numbers may rise and fall, but the UK has been exporting skilled engineers to all corners of the world since the industrial revolution.

In the 19th century they were frequently hot on the heels of the army and the Royal Navy as the British Empire expanded. In these more enlightened times the OECD’s data suggests their abilities are still in demand, something worth reflecting on next time someone suggests that the modern UK is only capable of producing innumerate half-wits fit only for the burger bar at best.

Of course the movement of skilled people out of and into the UK creates issues of its own, but it is an inescapable fact of a modern globalised economy.

Unless we want to adopt a North Korean approach to these matters (take your skills abroad by all means, if you can get past the border guards) we will have to get used to the fact that the UK is in a market even for its own people.

Better that is the case than for the UK to be known as the home of the engineers nobody else wants. Then we really would be in trouble.


Andrew Lee, editor