Where grass is greener

July 2, 1999

If the prospect of the next research assessment exercise is already getting you down and another short-term contract is all that is on thehorizon, what about taking a job abroad? Over the next few weeks, The THES will examine academiclife on almost every continent, bringing you the low-down on the vacancies, the salaries, the opportunities and the costs.

For, at the start ofthe 21st century,academic life is truly international. Academics work on a global playing field and research teams and funding cross geographic boundaries.To be with the best players, in the best laboratories, or handling the best data, you are going have to be prepared to criss-cross the world, taking the posts wherever they emerge.

Even in the mid-1990s, a quarter of the fellows of the Royal Society, the UK'spre-eminent scientific society, were working overseas, while some 40,000 UK scientists were estimated to be working in California's Silicon Valley. But there are opportunities for academics of all disciplines.

This week we look at Canada - where salaries start at Pounds 22,000, homes are cheap and there are plenty of lucrative opportunities for British academics.

Malcolm Scoble decided to take the plunge 16 years ago when he moved his family from Nottingham to Canada. He is now head of department at the University of Columbia and has an office metres from the Pacific Ocean...

I had a silly notion that if I was to move abroad, I had to do it before I hit 40. Before that, I was content working as a lecturer in mining engineering at Nottingham University. It was a pretty stress-free job, but my working life changed dramatically when I moved to Canada in the 1980s. Expectations and the work rate were a lot more demanding, and I fast became a workaholic. Emigration is not easy.

The decision to move to Canada - first in 1983 to McGill University in Montreal and then two years ago to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver - was taken two years before we actually emigrated. The main reason was my career prospects, but we also had to start thinking about the children and how the move would affect them.

My wife and I visited Canada the year before we moved. That was a very useful information-gathering exercise, which I would recommend to any lecturer thinking of leaving Britain. My wife devoted the first decade of our marriage to bringing up our three children. We felt that moving while they were young and adaptable was important.

The first few years in Canada, however, were hard for my wife, who lost both of her parents a few years after we emigrated. I could immerse myself in work, but she didn't have that outlet.

When we arrived in Canada, I worked very hard - which may be something that I now regret, but there were a lot of opportunities for research relating to the mining industry that weren't available back in Britain in the early 1980s. In fact, it was just as well that we were in Canada during the confrontation between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher that led to the virtual extinction of the UKcoal industry.

I have seen few British academics who have not flourished in the Canadian environment. This is not to say that the transfer was completely without surprises. It was strange to encounter so much emphasis on students as customers. I was not used to continuous assessment, or to course evaluation by students - who were not backward in coming forward when assessing teaching quality.

In research I believe Canada has the best system I have seen for funding new university researchers. A research grant from the Canadian federal government agency, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, got me off to a fast start.

When I left Britain I was involved in researching the health and safety issues thrown up by mining rock. This worked well in Canada where many mines were beset with problems. As the 1980s came to a close, however, new technologies emerged. I started to develop interdisciplinary links with mechanical and electrical engineers and helped to set up a research centre in mining automation and robotics.

My career has now taken another turn. I am currently leading a national initiative to establish an interdisciplinary network of university researchers to develop a new way of mining, one that integrates mining technology with environmental and social science to ensure that Canadian mining is still competitive, but not at the expense of its natural surroundings.

But my greatest joy in the past decade has come from the fulfilment that my wife has gained from going back to university and establishing a fresh career. The Canadian university system is very accessible to mature students. She persevered as a part-time student to gain two degrees and now works as a rehabilitation counsellor.

I am deeply indebted to Canada, a young country with remarkably few social barriers.

CANADA'S UNIVERSITY JOBS BONANZA

The late 1960s saw a flurry of expansion in Canadian universities. Many of the academics brought in then, often from the United States, are due to retire over the next five years, meaning Canada could soon become a hotbed of recruitment.

The University of Toronto, one of the country's top academic institutions, says it will hire about 500 new academics over the next few years, while the University of British Columbia is set to lose 45 per cent of its faculty over the same period. Though there are untenured Canadians waiting in the wings, there may be lucrative opportunities for overseas academics.

Canada operates a policy of hiring Canadians first. If no candidate can be found, recruiters can look abroad. In university science and business departments, many posts are advertised overseas. Once a person is appointed by a university, obtaining a visa is a formality.

WHAT IT COSTS, WHAT YOU EARN AND WHAT TO EXPECT

With newly qualified PhDs at the University of British Columbia rarely starting on less than Can$50,000 (Pounds 22,000) a year, academics in Canada enjoy a "good standard of living", says Norma Wieland, vice-president of the university's faculty association.

Most academics at UBC earn well over Can$100,000 (Pounds 44,000) with some earning Can$180,000, (Pounds 78,000) and this in a country where the average price of a house is Can$170,000.

Where academia competes with high-paying industries for staff, says Mike Goldberg, chairman of UBC's academic plan advisory committee, post docs can start on more than Can$100,000.

This is nothing compared with some of the salaries being offered by elite US universities, where starting salaries for business graduates can be double that.

"But Canada is a nice place to work," says Professor Goldberg, a New Yorker who came to Vancouver 31 years ago. "We grant tenure to many of our researchers. When you are hired with a PhD, you are often hired into a tenure-track slot. If you work hard, and do a decent job in teaching and research, you will get tenure. In the US, you have to do an extraordinary job, and the chances of getting tenure are small. Here, we also have better job security, and there is a general sense of community."

University education in Canada is largely the responsibility of provincial governments, which receive block grants from federal government. This means policy can differ from province to province. There has, however, been a financial squeeze recently, with only Saskatchewan increasing financial support for universities in the past three years.

"Canadian governments have put universities on a sustained diet," reports the Globe and Mail newspaper. It says that public spending on universities (excluding research) has fallen in inflation-adjusted terms by 20 per cent over the past ten years, leaving higher education looking increasingly to alternative sources of funding - tuition fees and international students, as well as to research contracts and the commercialisation of research. It has also meant few recent across-the-board pay rises.

As members of the Public Service Employers' Council, which provides guidelines on the level of pay increases for public-sector workers, universities lose much of the autonomy they would otherwise have in setting pay rises, says Goldberg. But he adds: "We have absolute freedom on starting salaries in the university, which allows us to be competitive."

SITS VAC:BUSINESS, COMPUTING, FORESTRY...

Business and computer scientists, forestry and biotechnology researchers are all in hot demand in Canadian universities, while in British Columbia aquaculture (fish farming) experts and viticulturalists, are highly prized.

"We have a huge wine industry in BC, but no one to teach viticulture," says Professor Goldberg.

On the decline are the humanities, law and philosophy, which are oversupplied, with many more PhDs than post-doc places. Competition for the few tenured places in these faculties is fierce, and foreign nationals find these subjects hard to break into.

As for the most prestigious of Canada's 88 institutions, universities with medical schools are among the most highly ranked. These include Toronto; McGill in Montreal; UBC, the University of Western Ontario; the University of Alberta; Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario; the University of Montreal; McMaster in Hamilton, Ontario; Laval in Quebec City and Dalhousie in Halifax.

RESEARCH AND TEACHING:A HEALTHY BALANCE?

To create space for tenured staff to research, many universities employ sessional lecturers. These are non-researching lecturers, mostly on short-term contracts, who usually teach the first two years of degree courses, freeing time for tenured staff.

The sessionals are often post docs who find themselves spending so much time teaching that they do not have time to undertake the kind of research needed to win tenure. They often become migrant workers, going from one university to another.

Many Canadian research grants are now allowing recipients to buy their way out of teaching commitments, by using the money to pay for replacement sessional teachers.

Despite this, says Professor Goldberg, teaching is seen as important. "The press says it's publish or perish, but that's not the case. Would researchers prefer to do more research and less teaching? Of course. But teaching is valued. If you are an atrocious teacher, you won't get tenure."

Most faculties use the long summer vacation from May to September for research.

Many departments, however, run undergraduate courses over the summer for students wishing to gain extra credits to speed up what is normally a four-year undergraduate degree. Teaching these courses can offer an extra income for academics prepared to give further time to lecturing.

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