Leader: The future must be home grown

July 29, 2005

There is nothing wrong with recruiting academics overseas - on the contrary, UK universities' success in this regard shows that they are seen as internationally competitive and ambitious. But the growing proportion of foreign appointees indicated by our survey should still be a cause for concern. The results suggest that young British postgraduates are either turning their backs on academe or are failing to hold their own in a global employment market.

Senior mathematicians reached this conclusion about their own subject in March, and it appears that the trend is widely shared. With almost half of recent appointments at Oxford University going to foreign academics, the balance has plainly shifted too far. Not only will British talent be spread dangerously thinly but in parts of Eastern Europe, in particular, the brain drain that this trend represents is bound to be damaging. Yet what are universities, faced with a small pool of British candidates in some subjects and obsessed with the demands of the research assessment exercise, meant to do? Protectionism is not an option in the academic world.

The first requirement is for better information on the scale and causes of the problem. There is no overall decline in the number of students taking PhDs, but there have been long-standing shortages in certain subjects, such as economics. Government departments - or the funding councils - should be finding out whether potential academics are being put off by poor pay and conditions or are simply losing out to better qualified competitors from overseas. The answers may make uncomfortable reading, but they will have implications for several areas of education policy. If the trend is being driven by a combination of supply and demand, the most obvious (and expensive) remedy is to grasp the nettle of academic pay, particularly at lower levels where the growth in overseas appointments is strongest. The Higher Education Funding Council for England estimates that between 7,000 and 12,000 new recruits will be needed every year into the next decade, and that will require strong fields of UK candidates.

The other area in which action is needed is postgraduate education, where incentives must be strengthened if high-flyers are not to be lost before they even become prospective candidates for academic jobs. In Germany, a brain drain of researchers has been stemmed through well-funded programmes targeted at young researchers. The UK needs something similar if it is to develop the home-grown talent it will need to compete as a knowledge economy.

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