Does Taiwan have a ‘brain drain’?

By Emilio Venezian  / 

Sun, Sep 10, 2017 - Page 6

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.

Let us turn to the idea that salary differences are a dominant factor in migration.

I am willing to believe that people with little understanding might react to propaganda driven by this notion. However, those with a better understanding of life should consider not the nominal pay level, but the purchasing power associated with that pay level.

The northeastern US faced a problem more than half a century ago: a massive inflow of families on welfare who were attracted to that part of the country because its levels of social assistance were much higher than in other locations.

Emphasizing the difference in public assistance just made the problem worse. What was being ignored was that other factors had to be brought to the public’s attention, the northeast’s higher cost of living in particular.

In many cases, people found themselves in a much worse economic predicament — despite higher welfare benefits, they could not match their original standard of living.

Maybe governments should play an active role in educating the public to the fact that differences in pay levels reflect, among other things, considerable differences in cost of living.

Universities along the Atlantic seaboard of the US have trouble attracting young talent, despite salaries that are higher than those in the US Midwest, as the cost of living more than erodes those differences.

Other factors such as quality of life should be considered — and they probably are. I have known academics who rejected offers in Beijing or Shanghai, but accepted offers in cities with less congestion and lower air pollution.

Some of these factors cannot be changed easily; others may be changed with little fuss.

People tend to settle down not too far from where they completed their studies. About 55 years ago the New Jersey legislature changed a law to permit Seton Hall University to open a medical school, as most medical students decide to practice in the state where they are educated and New Jersey was having trouble attracting physicians. As local education took hold, the doctor shortage shrank.

One potential strategy is to improve the education system. That can bring benefits in three ways: More students will study locally and settle here rather than abroad; talented people from other countries will be attracted to study here and will then settle in Taiwan; and the need for additional talented educators will be a third source of alleviating brain drain.

One other cause for the flight of talent deserves mentioning: misdirection in the educational system. I am not sure that we know enough about what future students think they are choosing when they select a subject to study.

We do know some of the things that go wrong in students’ determination of a career. One is the appeal of wealth. Young people are often misled by information as to which professions earn more money or require less effort. They seldom realize that these are not permanent features of the economy.

In the Sputnik era, the demand for engineers soared, and more students chose that as a profession. However, not long after they entered the workforce, there was a glut of engineers.

The remaining talent outflow is often accounted for by mass migrations of talent from regions of low demand to regions of higher demand.

This frequently happens in teaching. When my son was born in 1969, Massachusetts schools were reported to receive about three applications for every teaching position available. The birthrate had been declining, so by the time he reached first grade, the rate had reached more than 10 applications per opening. By the time he was in the third grade, it was 30 per opening.

Some of these situations can be easily anticipated, such as a demand for future teachers, which is based on changes in demography. We have six to 12 years of advance notice about a probable future demand for elementary school teachers and 20 to 25 years of advance notice about a need for university instructors.

I have yet to see a nation that uses such information to guide students into or away from specific careers, but I have known several that complain bitterly when that talent moves away.

Emilio Venezian is a former visiting professor at Feng Chia University.