Review: The Role of International Migration in Australia’s Research Workforce

Graeme Hugo’s “The Role of International Migration in Australia’s Research Workforce“, published in the Asian and Pacific Migration Journal (23, 1), highlights two important facts: Australia’s excellent migration data and some of the benefits of circular migration.

Hugo notes “Australia has a highly developed, comprehensive and accurate international migration data system” (p.30). I was struck on some recent travel about how little airport paper work you fill out in Europe and the Middle East compared to Australia. I guess the flipside is these other destinations miss out on this data. Our island continent is also much easier to maintain accurate records for than countries where the movement of people is more open (this goes for our asylum policy also). Hugo details this data and how the records are kept.

Because of this, I see Australia as having a special role to play for global migration research. We can help this increasingly important research area. Researchers in other countries regularly exclaim the merits of Australian migration data. Instead of locking up administrative data and movement records, there should be much more transparency. Easy to use interfaces would help researchers better utilise this source. The benefits are diverse but substantial, global in nature. A default “open” stance would help. Unfortunately all too often, these benefits are not considered by a risk-adverse bureaucracy.

Hugo moves on from the data and explains the basics of Australia’s research workforce. A few stats from his paper:

  • 27.3 per cent of the Australian population are migrants but “the proportions were higher for the high skilled groups of considered here – scientists (30.4 percent), researchers (38.1 percent) and university academics (41.3 percent)” (p.32)
  • “Between 2001 and 2006, the proportion of all workers who were born over- seas increased from 24.3 percent to 27.3 percent but the proportion for all researchers increased from 35.2 percent to 38.1 percent (Hugo, 2005a;2005b)” (p.32)
  • “The number of researchers entering Australia on a long-term visitor basis increased from 1,939 in 1995- 1996 to 7,076 a decade later and 13,825 in 2008-2009 and 16,231 in 2011-2012.” (p.32-34)
  • “Over the 1992-2010 period, 42.6 percent of all scientists leaving Australia on a permanent basis were overseas-born while this was the case for almost a third (32.2 percent) of scientists leaving on a long term basis.” (p.35)

(There are some lovely maps on pages 36 and 37 which visual the immigration trends for researchers entering Australia)

In the most forceful section, Hugo implicitly refutes the notion of ‘brain drain’. Hugo himself has been a prominent researcher on the concept of circular migration and how it presents complexities for any simple consideration of benefit or loss via migration. His discussion on Australia’s researcher diaspora points to how only a handful say (in surveys) they have no intention to return home. This is backed up by the data where it is shown there is “a high level of return migration among Australian researchers who live and work in foreign countries” (p.39). The most common reasons for this return migration are lifestyle and family related, with employment opportunities a long way behind (Table 4, p. 41).

Hugo is also confident about a greater ability of diaspora communities to better engage with home communities thanks to technology and faster, cheaper international travel. Perhaps I fall into this category myself. I’ve been living in Timor Leste for the past couple of months, as well as a bit of travel through Europe, while doing bits of pieces of research work. All I need is my Airbook, my mobile phone and a coffee. I don’t think this is what Graeme Hugo had in mind when he was writing this article but it is very hard to capture how broad experiences can be (I’m here for family, not work reasons).

What makes me most confident about this research agenda and the ability of Australia’s research community to capture these benefits is the strong identification with Australia that people living overseas have (p.42). Hugo highlights one survey showing 42 per cent of Australian emigrant researchers keep regular contact with Australian work colleagues. This is a massive number which was simply not possible even a decade ago.

Hugo drives home his hypothesis with case studies into the Chinese and Indian research community in Australia. His conclusion is a plea for more understanding about how these important sub-categories of immigration go unnoticed in the public discourse. Even in a highly educated area like academic researchers, a peak lobby group relying on ‘brain drain’ arguments in their advocacy in a country like Australia is pathetic. His policy solutions (a welcome contribution in an academic article) include fine tuning immigration selection, increasing the scope to facilitate return of Australian emigrants and innovation in incorporating diaspora activity (p.48).

This is an excellent paper which policy-makers would do well to read and use as evidence for government decision-makers.

One thought on “Review: The Role of International Migration in Australia’s Research Workforce

  1. Hi Henry

    Great summary. And yes – people leave for many different reasons – all return eventually with a wealth of experience and knowledge (about coffee?!) they didn’t have before.

    I’ve done some similar work on the Tasmanian diaspora ( – and in fact we have a net migration ‘brain gain’ as a result of circular migration movements.

    Also – one of my recommendations to the Tasmanian Government in developing their population policy was to work with UTAS to focus on HDR and Post Doc students aligned to our growth/comparative advantage industries.

    Cheers Lisa

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