Leader: Cosmopolitan campuses

June 15, 2007

UK academe must rank as one of the most international sectors of the country's economy. According to the latest figures, a fifth of all academics originate from overseas. In some subjects, namely maths, engineering and physics, foreign staff comprise around a third of the total. Notwithstanding the refreshing lack of grumbling about Polish physicists or Estonian engineers, which is only to be expected in a sector that prides itself on tolerance, mobility and openness, internationalisation is not without its problems.

The first is that the sector stands accused, much like the health service, of bleeding developing countries dry of irreplaceable talent. This is undoubtedly a problem for some countries in Eastern Europe and Africa in particular. However, many academic migrants are from developed countries with sclerotic university systems; and many of those who are not, plan to return home eventually.

The second problem is that departmental heads' enthusiasm at being able to draw on a modestly paid, highly qualified pool of talent might not be shared by junior colleagues or indeed by migrants themselves, who, as one of them says, fear being trapped in an "underclass" of low pay and fixed-term contracts. These are understandable concerns, but there is no evidence that pay is being deflated or that migrants end up in career culs-de-sac. Many are on fixed-term contracts not because they are foreign but because they are researchers.

Finally, it could be argued that the overseas influx attests less to the vibrancy of UK higher education and more to its unattractiveness as a career option for qualified Britons. It is striking that many disciplines with a large proportion of overseas academics are often those whose graduates command high starting salaries elsewhere in the economy.

But that is too bleak an analysis. Academics choose to come here in large numbers not to fill a skills gap but because UK higher education is an attractive proposition. The pay is reasonable, and can even be excellent.

The career path is open, relatively rapid and not riddled with nepotism.

The research possibilities, if not endless, are plentiful. Ultimately, British universities are the big winners. They now play host to a diverse population with different perspectives and fresh ideas and, quite properly, no one cares if they are from Macclesfield or Minsk.

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