Sweden's Brain Gain

Contrary to popular belief, Sweden attracts more highly educated people than it loses to the rest of the world, according to a survey published at the end of 2003 by the national agency Statistics Sweden. "There has long existed the myth of a great academic brain drain from Sweden. This is now proved to be untrue, while the opposite situation prevails," Minister of Education Thomas Östros says in a press release.

Swedish worries about an academic brain drain may be due to a few highly publicised cases of top scientists leaving for better salaries and swankier lab conditions, mainly in the United States. But although there may be a brain drain when it comes to quality, in terms of quantity there is no such thing. Between 1987 and 2002 Sweden exported 100,000 people with a basic or higher university degree, but imported 180,000, both foreigners and returning Swedes.

The net gain of 80,000 brains can in part be explained by the unstable state of the world; Sweden has received many university graduates from countries such as Bosnia. But Sweden has also made gains from countries to which many Swedish graduates traditionally emigrate.

In fact, Sweden has lately had a net immigration in relation to 15 of its top 20 emigration countries. The only five countries with Swedish academic net losses in the period 2000-2002 were the U.S., Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Singapore--the latter two by only a small margin. In contrast, there were large Swedish net gains in relation to (in descending order) Norway, Denmark, Germany, Finland, China, the Netherlands, Japan, and several more European countries.

Norway is a special case. A large number of Swedish nurses and doctors moved there in the mid 1990s, attracted by much higher salaries. Many of these people have since returned, however, possibly because not only salaries but also prices have grown much higher in Norway than in Sweden.

But for other countries there is no such cost of living difference in Sweden's favour. The Department of Education, in its comment on the survey, makes no attempt to find other explanatory factors, only stating that "the tendency towards increased net immigration ... is a positive sign of Sweden's ability to attract a foreign labour force."

According to the department, Sweden is one of the world's most internationalised countries. This fact has been important for the country's development in the past and will continue to be so in the future. Thus, although Sweden's own universities will continue to be the main source of new academics, the input of people from abroad is considered to add valuable experiences.

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