Sun, Sep 10, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Does Taiwan have a ‘brain drain’?

By Emilio Venezian

As has been reported in several articles and editorials in the Taipei Times this year, it is possible that Taiwan is undergoing a “brain drain.” The emphasis that the Department of Education, the National Development Council and others are placing on differences in pay levels might even make the problem worse.

In my view, this emphasis is unlikely to reduce the problem, if indeed one exists.

I would like to discuss the two issues separately: How can we determine if a brain drain is occurring and, if one exists, how might it be affected by pay levels?

A Taipei Times article last month reported National Development Council Minister Chen Tain-jy’s (陳添枝) methodology for measuring brain drain:

“About 5 percent of Taiwanese workers abroad hold undergraduate or higher degrees, meeting the definition of brain drain,” Chen said, citing data from the immigration and labor agencies (“Brain drain problem has deteriorated: NDC minister,” Aug. 25, page 12).

One might ask why 5 percent is a better measure than any other arbitrary number, but I believe it is more important to focus on the lack of context.

To illustrate the importance of context, let me formulate a similar statement using a different field, one that has a better-known context.

Would I be acting sensibly if I issued a statement that said, “The national elementary-school system is practicing gender discrimination because the ratio of males to females is 1.08, which is higher than one male to every female”? One might even claim that, looking at the ratio over the years, it is statistically greater than 1.

However, looking at the context might set us straight: The ratio is not far from the ratio of male births to female births (1.08). Admittedly, we might expect the ratio among school-children to be somewhat lower, because for children six years old or younger, male mortality is higher than female mortality. However, for the nation as a whole, the ratio is 1.09, declining slightly from 1.095 in first grade to 1.091 in sixth grade.

We might even make the context richer by looking at data from municipal schools (1.10), county and city schools (1.09), and private schools (1.17).

In the case of brain drain, the context could be set by looking at the ratio of the education levels of people in Taiwan to those who moved to Taiwan from abroad. We might find that, by this measure, Taiwan is gaining rather than losing talent.

Personal ethics requires a confession at this point: The data I presented above come from the Ministry of Education Web site. My usual practice when using data is to make a reasonable attempt to verify it. I went to the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) Web site to see how closely the enrollment data match the population data.

I expected problems, such as the closest group of population estimates by age not having a breakdown by gender and referring those aged 14 or younger. That includes many children who are not of elementary-school age, but I thought a comparison using total school enrollment might be a first step.

It was a first shock: The reported enrollment averaged about 40 percent of the reported population from 2005 to 2015. In addition; from 43 percent in 2005 to 2008, it declined to 38 percent in 2013 to 2015.

That might be due to the overly broad age range. The MOI Web site reports annual birth totals, so I tried to use that data to remove those aged six or under, as well as 13 and 14 year olds from the group. Even with that correction, enrollment was only about 75 percent of the estimated population — so something is not right someplace, unless one-quarter of 6 to 12-year-old children are being taught at home.

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