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More gain than brain drain

Alasdair Murray (London, CentreForum): Are the educated deserting Britain? New OECD figures show the UK has the highest number of its graduates living abroad of anywhere in the developed world. There are now over 3 million British-born people living abroad, of whom more than 1 million are university graduates. Doomsayers argue this movement reflects growing dissatisfaction with Brown's Britain: high taxes, too much red tape and unsustainable immigration.

But the reality is that this trend is neither new nor alarming. The surge in skilled emigration has as much to do with the recent strength of the British economy - and especially the housing market - as it does with any political failings. Rising affluence combined with EU freedom of movement rules and the voracious appetite of other growing economies for skilled labour have liberated more British people than ever to choose where they want to live.

In return, these same forces have provided the UK with an ample supply of young, highly skilled migrants to power our own economic growth. There are 1.1 million UK born graduates living abroad. But this is more than balanced by the 1.6 million foreign born graduates now living in the UK. The educational profiles of immigrants and emigrants are strikingly similar: approximately 34.7 per cent of UK born residents living abroad are graduates compared with 34.8 per cent of foreign born residents here. The UK's economy not only produces but attracts a highly skilled workforce. This is no brain drain; simply a brain exchange.

It is also important to view the figures themselves in context. First, they do not reflect short term trends. Over 80% of UK born foreign residents have been settled abroad for over 10 years. Indeed, the number of UK born graduates living abroad may actually have fallen since 2005. Nor is the rate of emigration unprecedented. It is approximately the same - just over 3 emigrants per 1,000 residents - as it was from the end of World War II to the early 1970s.

Then there is the case that those moving abroad are fleeing high taxes, stifling bureaucracy or public services overburdened by immigration. But the UK's tax burden, 36% of GDP, is almost exactly the same as the OECD average of 35.9% and is lower than the EU average of 39.7%. And our multiculturalism is also often exaggerated: the foreign born proportion of the UK population (8.4%) is below the OECD average (9.4%). Of the five most favoured destinations for Britons living abroad, four: Australia, Canada, the United States and Ireland, have larger proportions of its population foreign born than the UK. Only Spain has a lower level.

We also gain from the demographics of those leaving and arriving. Perhaps the most telling statistic from the OECD report is that UK emigrants tend to be older than the OECD average. 23% of those currently leaving the UK are over 65. A substantial amount of our emigration comes from the growing wanderlust of an older generation - taking advantage of strong sterling and the housing market to find their dream home abroad. Given that just 15.5% of foreign born residents of the UK are aged over 65, it is clear that this is a net benefit to Britain. An exchange of young for old can only be an advantage for the aging UK population.

Indeed, if there is a problem in the UK at the moment it is that we are failing to take advantage of the highly skilled immigrants we are receiving. Despite having on average better educational qualifications, foreign-born UK residents have an employment rate 9 percentage points below that of British-born residents, with foreign born graduates lagging even further behind. Other countries are competing hard for skilled migrants to fuel economic growth - both Australia and New Zealand have been actively campaigning for UK migrants. Britain should continue to compete to attract the best and brightest from around the world - not turn them away with tightened border controls.

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