ACA Annual Conference 2010

Brains on the move.
Gains and losses from student mobility and academic migration.

Córdoba, 16-18 May 2010


The ACA 2010 Annual Conference bears the title Brains on the move. It explored both the international mobility of tertiary students and the international migration of researchers and university staff, themes in which ACA has specialised for a long time already. For both groups, tertiary students and researchers, we provided a state-of-the-art record of the empirical situation of global mobility and migration flows, particularly with a bearing on movements into, out of and inside Europe.  But we will also addressed the realities behind the numbers, by identifying the ‘drivers’ of mobility and migration, that is the factors which ‘push’ and which ‘pull’ students and staff internationally. The overriding purpose of Brains on the move was, however, to shed light on the question if international mobility represents a competitive game of ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain gain’, that is if there are clear winners and losers, or if the current movements in academia around the globe are better characterised as ‘brain circulation’, where gains and losses are more equally distributed. The question of gains and losses was not only explored with a view to countries of origin and destination, which is the standard approach, but also at the level of the mobile individuals themselves and at the level of the higher education and research institutions involved. In doing so, we slaughtered a few holy cows, by putting to the test the widely held belief that mobility and migration are simply good for every student and researcher, regardless of geographic origin and particular circumstances.

Within this overall framework, we also addressed the role of the many national “initiatives for excellence” which try to build ‘world class universities’, and we looked into various instruments for the attraction, the re-attraction and the retention of researchers around the globe.  An important sub-issue of the conference was the way in which developing countries are affected by the international movements of academics.

To view the full programme, click here.


The conference consisted of plenary presentations, panels and discussions as well as workshops. The four workshops were intended to deepen the understanding of themes already at stake in the plenary sessions. Please find below a sketch of each of those.

Workshop 1:  Mobility and migration in developing countries (Han Aarts et al)

The global competition for talent is becoming fiercer by the day. And now, as in the past, it very often happens that the ‘best and brightest’ come from the developing world. Confronted with high migration flows, developing countries, particularly from Africa, but not only, have been incessantly reported during the past decade to suffer from a brain drain phenomenon, i.e. the outflow of students and migration of highly educated workers. But how much does this phrase still reflect the current situation in developing countries? What are the migration trends and to what extent can we talk of ‘gains’ in this particular group of states? These are only few of the issues that were investigated during the workshop. The session, however, strived to look beyond that, by also looking at an opposite trend: academic cooperation with developing countries for local capacity building.

Workshop 2:  Global student mobility (Ulrich Teichler, Robert Gutierrez, Ross Hudson tbc)      

After observing the main trends and exploring the most important motivations that drive international student mobility in the previous plenary session, this workshop will focus on some more hands-on issues within the same topic. A presentation of the “Atlas Project” of the Institute of International Education in New York aiming to build a “shared image of international mobility” shed some light on the strengths and challenges of this ambitious endeavour. Some highlights of an ACA study in progress illustrated to what extent international data sets on student mobility can be ‘trusted’ to reflect the real picture, or at least how the data should be ultimately read. Last but not least, results of a newly-released global survey provided new insights on institutional internationalisation policies and priorities, including issues related to student mobility.

Workshop 3:  Mobility of young researchers (Louise Ackers et al) 

Doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and other early stage researchers are the backbone of the global research systems, accounting for a high share of research output. Mobility and migration is particularly high amongst this group. In the world’s most performing research universities and systems, the share of foreign-born and foreign-educated young researchers is close to 50 percent.  Is this a temporary phenomenon, and do these researchers return “home” or move on to other countries at a later stage, or do they stay permanently? And if so, is this only a “loss” for research in their countries of origin? Is mobility just a “blessing” for young researchers, providing them with the best conditions for research training possible? Or has mobility become simply a formal requirement for researcher careers, regardless of needs and benefits for the individual concerned? These are some issues dealt with in this workshop.