Monday 9 January 2012

Drains and brains

I found last Thursday's headline story in the Western Mail, about the “brain drain” from Wales both confused and confusing.  The academic report to which it refers was a complex one highlighting a number of different factors, not all of them necessarily bad, and it seemed to me that the Western Mail was having some difficulty in distilling that complex report down to a simple headline story.  I thought the report deserved a more analytical and in depth approach to coverage than the newspaper gave it.
The one common thread seemed to be that "something must be done", although what that "something" is was pretty vague and undefined - largely, one suspects, because there was no clear agreement on what the problem really is; only on the symptoms.
I thought the approach in Dylan Jones Evans's blog was more incisive, highlighting as it did one of the key issues which the Mail seemed to have completely missed, namely that where people choose to study is a key determinant of where they go on to live and work after graduation.  Dylan goes on to highlight the Welsh government's tuition fee policy as a key factor in that decision.  I was with him on the first part but thought that he was stretching the point a bit on the second.
The tuition fees policy pursued by the One Wales government between 2007 and 2000 was much more focused on encouraging students to stay in Wales to study, and there was, as Adam Price forcefully pointed out at the time, some indication that it was having precisely that effect.  Sadly, the then Labour-Plaid government scrapped the policy on grounds of affordability, only to replace it with what looks like a much more expensive policy a year later, after the change in government in London finally allowed Labour in Wales to disagree with the policy of the UK government.
There are a number of issues which drive Welsh students to study in England rather than in Wales, but they go well beyond the tuition fees policy.  Students take into account their perceptions about comparative "quality" (although whether those perceptions are justified is another matter entirely) of universities in Wales and England.  There are also questions about the range of subjects available – the sheer number of universities in England compared with Wales makes it all but inevitable that there will be a greater range of subjects available.
There was an assumption underlying the way that the story was presented that it is inherently a “good" thing that Welsh domiciled students stay in, or return to, Wales after graduation.  That's certainly a point with which I would agree; as a nationalist I want to see a Wales where young people wish and are able to live and work and enjoy rewarding and fulfilling careers in their chosen fields.
(In pure economic terms, however, it isn't as simple as that.  If Welsh students studying and then living elsewhere are replaced by English students studying and living here, the economic effect of the so-called brain drain is far from clear-cut.)
That in turn raises the perennial question of what higher education is for.  Is it to provide the right number of graduates in the right disciplines to meet the current and future economic needs of Wales?  Such an approach undervalues the idea of more abstract learning having an intrinsic value in its own right, but it did seem implicit in some of the comments being made.  Concentrating simply on meeting the economic needs of Wales is surely an inadequate mission for our universities.
One other point struck me as being relevant, and it’s to do with the “internal” brain drain. 
Concentrating merely on net loss from Wales to England ignores the significant net movements happening regionally within Wales.  Areas such as Dyfed and Gwynedd lose a high proportion of their most well-educated young people to Cardiff and the south-east every year.  A concentration merely on the net movements between England and Wales completely loses sight of this fact.
Far from being the dry and irrelevant issue as which some want to paint it, I see greater autonomy for Wales and greater devolution within Wales as being key issues in developing a more balanced and dispersed economy internally.  Re-localisation is what will provide opportunities to young people to live and work in their own communities.  It doesn't guarantee of course that they take them, but giving them the choice would be a good start.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

According to Glyn Davies MP for Montgomeryshire in his contribution of regional pay in the Westminster house this morning, he said that when he was on the local council his farming business suffered from staffing issues because of the relatively higher level of pay for staff in the council. He obviously believes that clerical officers would be tempted into milking his cows if they get paid less, and social workers would be tempted to swap jobs and shovel his manure if there was less pay at the pay the local authority. (I'm not joking, that's the point he made). The reality is, and you highlight it in this blog, regional pay is more likely to tempt workers on a 'career ladder' to move geographically, an already existing process. This is the reason why there is an existing 'brain drain' within Wales, even when a standardised pay structure exists. Obviously. Glyn Davies is talking manure, and the points you make above, show why.