Tales of continental drift

The globalised academy offers ambitious scholars a plethora of opportunities, yet expat life is nothing if not unpredictable

June 26, 2014

There aren’t many professions or, dare I say it, industries that are genuinely global concerns, but higher education is one of them.

In the past decade much of the focus has been on international students, with the developing economies driving rapid growth in demand, and the established university systems mopping it up.

But although the scale of the international student market has put it centre stage, an itinerant lifestyle has always been a part of the academic profession, with countless Philip Swallows and Morris Zapps changing places each year, usually in pursuit of their research.

One of the frustrations when writing about internationalisation is that it can be very abstract: the scale is too large to mean much to the individual. So this week, we’ve asked six academics who have moved overseas whether it was as they expected, or whether what looked from afar like a lush green lawn turned out to be a patch of scrub favoured by fly-tippers.

The lecturer who moved to New Zealand was warned by her colleagues that she was taking leave not just of Edinburgh but of her senses

One of the interesting aspects of our postcards from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Italy and Nottingham (where we hear from an American expat) is that if one thing is certain about life in another higher education system, it’s that it is unpredictable.

The lecturer who moved to New Zealand, for example, was warned by colleagues that she was taking leave not just of Edinburgh but of her senses: Auckland was the back of beyond and her research, and career, would suffer, she was told. Not so, she says, and her experience has been as enriching professionally as personally.

Finland, on the other hand, is held up as an educational Utopia – the meritocracy all should aspire to. Yet when Gareth Rice moved to Helsinki in 2007, he found that an initially warm welcome turned into something altogether cooler, and he describes the feeling that he has been frozen out for a variety of reasons, from language to a culture of “Finnish jobs for Finnish academics”.

These snapshots are the experiences of individuals, but they do highlight the kaleidoscope of possibilities that exist in the globalised academy, particularly one in which English is the undisputed lingua franca.

The significance of this is clear even when academics move between countries in which English is not the first language.

In a report published last week, the Institute of International Education sets out the difficulties facing Syrian academics who have been displaced by the civil war and are seeking work in Lebanon.

The barriers are political, financial and linguistic, it says, with hostility from local academics who do not welcome the competition. One of the ways in which the Syrians are fended off, according to the IIE, is their generally inferior linguistic skills.

One Syrian professor who has taught in Lebanon for several decades explains: “Many Lebanese think that if you speak English, you must be better at chemistry.”

It’s tempting to think of the academic profession in the way we think of science: as an enterprise free of national bias and politics, where merit is all that matters. Tempting, but also a load of tosh.


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