'Brain drain' question: myth or reality?

  • 2005-06-01
  • By Stephanie Milbergs
RIGA - It is becoming increasingly apparent that more and more Latvian young people are seeking master's degrees and jobs abroad. The trend is especially prevalent in EU countries, now that Latvia has joined the bloc.

There are 788 Latvian students studying at 31 universities across the world under exchange programs, according to Latvian Education and Science Ministry statistics. From the University of Latvia, 356 students study abroad. Most of them chose German universities, while some 20 students went to Finland and the Czech Republic. Several also study in the CIS countries, as well as Portugal, China, Canada and Japan.

All of these movers and shakers have led some to fear that Latvia, along with the other Baltic countries, will undergo a "brain drain" in many industrial and professional sectors. Yet others firmly disagree.

Twenty-seven-year-old Dace Taurina says she is not actively searching for a foreign job, but that it's always in the back of her mind: "If you are talented you can have a good job here, but better salaries exist abroad."

Taurina emphasizes that the quality of education is better in other countries, adding that she has considered obtaining her master's degree in another EU country.

Raimonds Bircis did exactly this - in Sweden at the University of Stockholm, School of Business with a concentration in business administration.

"I knew I didn't want to do my master's in Latvia because I wanted more international experience and didn't want to start work right away," says Bircis. "There was an opportunity in Sweden and I won a scholarship to go there."

Studying in Scandinavia was ideal, he adds, because the education was in English, it was close to home and there was an international crowd.

"The international dimension is missing in Latvia and Latvian businesses lack cross-cultural understanding," Bircis continues. "However, I decided to return to Latvia because it's a great place to live's- it's prosperous, growing, and there's more and more opportunity. People are leaving not because they don't like the country, they're going where there are better opportunities. Quite a few of my friends have gotten a master's degree abroad because they are serious about education."

One such friend is Jurgis Ozolins. Completing a master's in service management and research at Karlstad University in Sweden, Ozolins is currently wrapping up his second MBA at Riga Business School.

"I left for experience and education," says Ozolins, who believes that education is "much more professional in Sweden."

But he adds that those who leave will most likely return: "It is very exciting for us [young people] in Latvia. We can do and influence a lot."

Kristine Rudzite is another example of someone who completed her master's abroad 's and returned. Studying at the London School of Economics with a concentration in Politics of the World Economy, Rudzite returned to Latvia for work opportunities. She is currently completing her PhD in international relations in Riga.

"Work wise, people can do more interesting things here in Latvia, especially in the government sector," says Rudzite. "It's interesting to live in Latvia because I work on Latvia's policy with Ukraine, Georgia and also write speeches 's- I appreciate this."

She emphasizes that although people may be content with their education and salaries in other EU countries, there is low job satisfaction.

"They are working junior-level jobs abroad, while they would be in high-level positions in Latvia," she says.

But some are willing to take the chance of holding a less-prestigious position for what they feel is a life experience.

Ivars Krutainis, 22, departed just a few weeks ago to seek a job in London. Most Latvians who leave for better pay abroad choose either Great Britain or Ireland, according to a report by the Baltic News Service. Those two countries are followed by Sweden and Germany, adds Sandra Racinska, an official from the State Employment Service.

Krutainis chose England because he works in the advertising sector and "London has the second biggest advertising business in the world and the first in Europe."

Furthermore, he speaks English and doesn't need to apply for a new work permit. Since Latvia joined the EU in May 2004, the pursuit of job opportunities abroad has increased significantly, emphasizes Racinska. The total number of Latvians currently employed in Great Britain totals 9,070.

However, NVA director Ringolds Beinarovics is concerned that this ever-growing trend consists dominantly of young people who chose lower-end jobs over studying. If they had stayed at home after acquiring an education, they would have most likely obtained better-qualified jobs.

But then, looking at wage statistics, there is little surprise so many students head west: Latvia has the lowest salaries in the EU.

Krutainis, for one, knows he will earn more abroad than at home, while also garnering a valuable life experience. Latvia lacks certain programs, he says, adding that he believes education is on a slightly higher level in other EU countries.

"In the long term, I plan on returning to Latvia. But while I'm young, I might as well travel," Krutainis says.

Considering the number of young people who plan to eventually return to Latvia, one wonders if the country really needs to fear a "brain drain." Rudzite believes that, in some sense, there is a justified fear, although it is not conclusive.

"I am an optimist so I think our economy will get better," she says. "I'm not sure I would call it a problem; the world is just getting more mobile."

"I don't see a problem if people are leaving the commercial sector, but it will be a problem if the business sector does not provide more challenges for Latvian society," says Bircis.

"If policy makers are leaving then it's sad. But business is a free market's- Latvia is a market economy and people are going where the offers are. I'm sure it will be okay, it's just a question of time."