Leader: New stars for old

July 9, 2004

The brain drain is a perennial concern of politicians and university leaders, but it is never as simple as the headlines make out. The academic labour market has become so international that no country can expect to hold on to all its stars. As the Association of University Teachers' survey demonstrates, there are bound to be differences between subjects and levels of seniority. The balance sheet has to be as much about quality as quantity.

In the UK, the debate has always revolved around movement to and from the US, with the presumption that rich American universities will make offers that the impoverished British academic cannot refuse. This week's figures suggest, however, that this tide is turning and that British universities are also competing strongly for academic talent in Eastern Europe. The main flow to the UK is among younger academics, but they may be the stars of tomorrow. British universities cannot be complacent about losing household names but some will already have produced their seminal work.

If the brain gain continues at its current rate, there will be inevitable concern for the opportunities available to British academics. But the dearth of young candidates in subjects such as economics and an ageing staff profile throughout the higher education system should leave plenty of room for imports. Every appointment has to be made on merit, but the recruitment programmes at Aberdeen, Nottingham and Royal Holloway suggest that a balance is being maintained.

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