The Brain Drain

By Penny Egan –

Apparently there is a brain drain of bright young students to the USA.

This seems to be the storyline that the British media has taken ever since the Laura Spence affair, where the former comprehensive school student accused Oxford of elitism for not admitting her despite being qualified and happily accepted a place at Harvard. Despite many efforts to get the other side of the story aired, the UK’s ‘third estate’ doesn’t seem inclined to print a more balanced view of the situation.

Running a trans-Atlantic organisation, I can see the flow of students in both directions across the ocean but feel that the person in the street, not privy to the information that I see, is getting a rather one-sided view.

It is indeed true that there is heightened interest from British students to study in the US. Anecdotally we can see this interest manifesting itself in the numbers of enquiries we get at the Fulbright Commission, our website hits on the pages of information about studying in the States, attendance at our undergraduate and postgraduate events, and the huge interest in our annual College Day Fair. This year we had 170 US universities exhibiting and over 4,500 attendees pass through the fair over one and a half days. This compares to 89 universities and 2,500 attendees over one day in 2008. Why this increased interest? Firstly, £9,000 tuition fees begin to make some of the US state universities seem eminently affordable. The Ivy league institutions and other leading US universities have often more generous financial aid packages and scholarships to offer than their UK counterparts. Sometimes British students studying in the USA can come out of a four year degree with hardly any debt. Our new collaboration with the Sutton Trust on a social mobility-focused form of the US Programme has been enormously successful in obtaining significant undergraduate funding for state-educated, low to middle income British undergraduate students at top US universities1. And then there is the attraction of the American liberal arts degree and the increasingly persuasive research which demonstrates that study abroad enhances your chances of securing a good job.

So there is no doubt that there are more British students heading to the States to study. The figures bear this out, last year 9,467 British students went to the USA, this includes the greatest year on-year increase in undergraduates (5%) for the past 10 years. But what the figures – from HESA and UCAS – also bear out is that there are many more American students coming to study in the UK. The total figures include 16,233 US students who actively pursued full degrees in the UK in 2012-13, plus a whopping 34,600 Americans who came to these shores for a short-term exchange. These figures are understandable, the population in the US is much bigger and so there are many more students and so proportionally you would expect that in overall figures. However the trend for US undergraduates studying here also shows an increase of 4% in academic year 2012-13. Furthermore UCAS are reporting an 8% increase in US applicants for 2014-15, showing a significantly growing upwards trend. The UK is the top destination for US students pursuing a full degree abroad 2 and the top destination for short-term study abroad. But I bet the American press isn’t running stories bemoaning the brain drain to the UK!

So what does attract them to the UK? Key factors include the strong reputation of British higher education, the shorter length of the degrees and increased competitiveness in the job market. Additionally, unlike their British peers, American students are able to use their US Government student loans to complete full degrees abroad.


So let us for a moment recognise that there is a good story to be told. And that if we don’t consciously value what we currently have that makes our universities so attractive, we may not continue to invest, and our current position of second only to the US in global league tables, could well be in jeopardy.

So what should we be celebrating? Bahram Bekhradnia made a very convincing argument in the annual Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) lecture last year. He proved that research is probably the most successful aspect of our higher education system and one where the UK is indeed punching above our weight, as this graph used by Bekhradnia in his lecture illustrates.

As he said: “One of the reasons why we perform well is because of the presence in this country of gifted scholars from other countries. That is not to detract from our success – it is a tribute to the openness of this country’s university system that we have been able to draw in so many gifted academics from overseas.”

For those of you who have not read it, I commend its analysis as reason for some celebration, but also as a wake-up call to those who are either complacent or who would further hinder the sector through damaging immigration rules; lack of investment in research; lack of loan facilities beyond undergraduate study, lack of portability, and reduced teaching contact time, etc.

We have a wonderful export in UK higher education. Let’s for once recognise our success and do a bit of crowing, I hope the media will help us.

Penny Egan CBE is Executive Director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

The Fulbright Commission was created by treaty on 22 September 1948. The Fulbright Programme aims to foster mutual cultural understanding through educational exchange between the US and the UK. It achieves this through a wide range of postgraduate and postdoctoral scholarships for US and UK citizens and through its Advisory Service. For more information visit

  1. See for details.
  2. Institute of International Education Project Atlas 2012

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