A lot of ink has already been spilled over the recent French report from the Montaigne Institute “Gone for good? “ that addresses the issue of the French academic expatriation towards the US. Although press articles are generally more nuanced, most of the titles chosen to cover the report are quite catastrophic. A few examples include a headline in the newspaper, L’Expansion, “How France let its brains leave.” Le Monde announced that “The best researchers always choose the United States” and Le Figaro joined with “French brains prefer the United States”. As for the articles published in the US, The New York Times announced “French Fear 'Brain Drain' to the U.S.” and addressed the reason that US colleges are so attractive in “French Professors Find Life in U.S. Hard to Resist.”
What do we really learn in from the Montaigne report? What is at stake today for the French higher education system? Written by a researcher that is part of this “brain-drain” process and has been educated in the very best French higher education institutions, this report can be summarized as follows.
First, there is a sort of myth around a quantitatively significant academic brain drain from France towards the US, debunked when compared with the European average—French scholars who depart represent 1,3% of the total French academic population, compared with 2% of the European scholars who relocate to the US (UE15). But two reasons might explain the myth—first, the last decades have seen a strong acceleration of French academic migration and second, limited data available on this issue makes it impossible to reach a definitive view, subsequently favoring extrapolations.
Additionally, this report argues that if the problem is not quantitative, the qualitative dimension is more urgent as the expatriation often involves the elite, as measured by the number of prizes and distinctions obtained and the number publications in scientific reviews. Most of those who leave have been trained in the “Grandes Ecoles”, institutions dedicated to the training of the elite of the nation, and training that is also the most expansive for taxpayers. Thus, one can question the cost of the national investment in the education of an elite as well as the loss of intellectual capital for the country.
Finally, the report underlines that the brain gain more often concerns some specific stages of the career; few doctoral students prepare their PhD in the US, but when they do so, they tend to remain in the US. As for the post-doctoral students, one fifth of those who do research in the US remain on the North-American continent afterwards. This process also partly explains that some fields such as life sciences and hard sciences are areas more likely to experience expatriation. They typically require a post-doctoral experience as well an extensive use of English in research, while these two requirements are not (yet) intrinsic to an academic career in the soft sciences. One could also argue that the former are, as scientific fields, more internationalized, while the latter remain more linked to their national territory and identity; or, that the economic return on investment is much more important with the first ones.
So how is the Institut Montaigne analyzing the situation? It is interesting that they perceive the recent higher education reforms—reforms that have been so controversial amongst the French academics —as a potential tool to stimulates the brain regain. To make a long story short, these reforms introduce more differentiation between higher education institutions and between academics, including greater potential wages differentiation. In an international context (in which the classical French remuneration is not attractive) the possibility for higher education institutions to compete for academics using wages represents a small revolution. So does the institutional differentiation, differentiation that potentially increases the organizational flexibility of the flagship institutions when it comes to research. This double differentiation, and its consequence, the reinforcement of a Matthew principle in the French academy (i.e. giving more to those who already have) can thus be perceived as moving the French higher education system closer to the American organizing principles, and thus as an opportunity to attract French researchers back and (perhaps) to seduce the American researchers. Does it mean that these reforms will support a tiny academic elite and relegate the vast majority to (at best) a second or a third circle in a new, more evident, more recognized hierarchy? It could be a challenging task for a think tank such as the Montaigne Institute to track the potential brain regain and brain drain processes in a few years to see whether this differentiation process proves effective.