Where you can hit the beach running

July 16, 1999

In the second of a series on academic chances abroad, Simon Poole tells how big opportunities without 'old-school ties' lured him down under, and Julia Hinde (below) gives the low-down on job openings and salaries

A long-standing Aussie enthusiasm for hiring academics from abroad, particularly from Britain and the United States, means that a third of the continent's academics were born elsewhere.

More than half of the country's engineering and computer science academics were born overseas, and in medicine the figure is 43 per cent. Between 1991 and 1996, 2,400 foreigners - 7.3 per cent of the academic workforce - arrived down under. And since 1996, Australian universities have directly sponsored almost 300 academics from overseas to gain permanent residency visas - despite swingeing job losses across academe.

Simon Poole left Southampton University 11 years ago, lured by the sun and surf of Australia. Since then he has set up a research group and overseen the launch of a successful spin-off company. He now sees himself as an Australian who used to live in Britain

In 1987, at the height of Thatcherite madness in the United Kingdom, I was offered the chance to present a paper at the Australian Conference on Optical Fibre Technology. The clincher was the location - a place called Surfers Paradise on Australia's Gold Coast.

Surfers Paradise lived up to its name, and although the quality of research in my field, optical fibres, was lower in Australia than in the UK, I was impressed by the way academics and industry were keen to work together to catch up. My girlfriend, now my wife, and I were looking to sample life in another country before returning to the UK (or so we planned). Suddenly we found ourselves considering a move to Australia rather than to the United States, as we had intended.

One year later, I completed my postdoctoral research at Southampton University, and we left Britain. My challenge was to set up an interdisciplinary research group, the Optical Fibre Technology Centre, at the University of Sydney. This, the second oldest university in Australia, was originally set up on the Oxbridge model of quasi-autonomous colleges with central teaching facilities. Over the years, the strength of the colleges has waned, and the institution is now a more "conventional" university with 18,000 students.

Being such a large university it was relatively easy to find space and academic time to complement the financial support we were trying to raise. Industry - in the shape of Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications company - came to the party with the initial capital we needed. Other contracts followed, and within three years we had grown to 30 staff and 20 students with an annual budget of Aus$2.5 million (Pounds 1 million). Our research was on novel applications of optical fibres. We even gave "Introduction to optical fibres" courses in the Philippines and Vietnam.

It was hard work - but made easier by knowing that even after another week of 12-hour days, the weekend weather would usually be good enough to head off to the beach or out into the bush.

One thing that became obvious as I was building up the research group was the absence of the "old school tie" syndrome. After only four years in Australia, aged 33 - neither a professor nor a head of department - I was asked to present a submission to the prime minister and the cabinet's science advisory council on the future of information technology and telecommunications. In the UK, I would never have had a chance of getting anywhere near the mighty people.

About three years after we started the centre, we combined with other university groups in Canberra and Melbourne under the government's cooperative research centres programme and obtained nearly Aus$64 million of funding to be spent over seven years. The Australian Photonics CRC, as it is known, started in January 1993. By the end of 1994 it was clear that our dream of building a significant manufacturing industry based around the research group was going to take more than just thinking over a cold beer at weekends. I wrote a business plan to spin off some of the research into a start-up company. Along with one PhD student and a fellow Pommie who wandered into my office one day looking for a job, we started Indx Pty Ltd in October 1995 to manufacture optical fibre components for telecommunications systems. The CRC kicked in a loan of Aus$10,000 to get us started.

By May 1996 we were shipping product, but we could not raise the money to build our first manufacturing equipment. The CRC came to the rescue with another loan, this time for Aus$500,000. In 1997, a US company, Uniphase Inc, offered the CRC (the majority shareholder) a deal, and we became Uniphase Fibre Components. Eighteen months later, we are now over 50 people and one of the world's leading manufacturers of an esoteric, but critical, component called a fibre Bragg grating.

Have the trials and tribulations of the past ten years been worthwhile? In a word - yes. Although universities here suffer from the same funding squeeze as in Britain, and many academics still see the opportunities overseas as superior to the home-grown variety - sound familiar? - the opportunities I have had are vastly superior to anything I would have got close to in the UK.

While I still miss warm beer, we see ourselves as Australians who used to live in the UK rather than Poms who are living in Australia. I don't think there's a better way to sum it up.

SITS VAC

A relatively small country in terms of population and research spending, Australia is a serious international player in several disciplines - including medical and agricultural research.

Medical research is the only university science in Australia entitled to its own pot of money. All the others compete for grants from the Australian Research Council, whose pot is only slightly larger than that feeding medical research.

Subjects with good job prospects include medical research, environmental research, IT, knowledge management, Japanese, Korean, agricultural research and mining. Unwanted are academics in European languages and pure physics.

Topping most lists of Australia's 37 public universities would be the University of Melbourne, but the University of Queensland is on the up. Other big players include the universities of Sydney, New South Wales, Adelaide, Western Australia in Perth, and Australian National University in Canberra and Monash.

Cooperative research centres, linking industry, universities and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, get a separate pot of government investment.

GETTING IN

In the past, academics could enter Australia under the points system operated by the immigration authorities.

Today lecturers are no longer on the list of skilled occupations able to enter without guaranteed work. Academics wishing to work in Australia must be nominated by a university.

Normally, to gain residency in this way, future employers need to prove that there is no suitable Australian for the job. But senior academics are exempted; so it can be relatively easy for a university to appoint a foreign senior academic. Passing the immigration hurdles, however, can take up to a year.

RESEARCH VS TEACHING

"Researchers research with difficulty," says Monash University academic Simon Marginson. More students and courses have boosted teaching and administration loads, he says, "but resources are static".

"The really good researchers keep going under tremendous pressure," he says. He does his writing between four and eight o'clock in the morning.

Although most academics both teach and research, a small number of teacher-only posts remain as a legacy of a system when colleges were amalgamated into universities. Australian National University has some research-only posts in its Institute of Advanced Studies.

According to Peter Darvall, also at Monash, many academics - who take on teaching, administration and research - are "working far too hard". "There is too much teaching," he says. Universities employ some casual staff, but the US system of using sessionals to teach undergraduates has not taken off.

Research is key to promotion. It is possible to make a case for promotion up to associate professor level just on teaching ability, but it would be hard to become a professor without doing any research.

PAY AND QUALITY OF LIFE

"We have a tremendous advantage in our lifestyle. That's our big draw - the climate and the space, the recreation opportunities, the community ethos," explains Peter Darvall, deputy vice-chancellor at Melbourne's Monash University.

Australia's academics may well have the weather and thousands of miles of coastline and bush to savour, but when it comes to university life, Australia is far from riding the crest of the wave.

With three years of cuts by government, universities across the country have been forced to take tough decisions. Budgets have been trimmed and staff cut, as universities look increasingly to non-federal sources of funding: to full fees from both home and international students.

Last month's research green paper is set to transform the way in which Australian university research is funded, but fails - say some - to address the issue of how little money is on offer in total. May's budget brought a boost for Australian medical research, but other research councils saw their budgets tumble. "I don't think research has ever been in a worse state," says Simon Marginson, reader at the Monash Centre for Research in International Education.

Yet, despite the outwardly hard times, Australian university faculty are negotiating hefty pay rises. Collective enterprise bargaining - the national agreement of a salary increase for all academics - has been replaced by local pay settlements.

Union demands of 19 per cent over three years always seemed a long shot, but an offer by the University of Sydney to up salaries by 15 per cent over four years has put other universities under pressure to follow suit.

With only three years of independent bargaining, salaries at most universities still lie in a narrow range. Pay for academics at Monash ranges from Aus$34,000 (Pounds 14,000) for the most junior assistant lecturer, to Aus$64,000 for a mid-ranking senior lecturer, and Aus$92,000 for a professor.

These are minimum salary bands, and a professor could expect Aus$16,000 more for heading a department and to receive an additional 17 per cent towards a pension.

The cost of living in Australia is substantially lower than it is in the United Kingdom, though taxes are higher. The median house price in Melbourne is Aus$205,000 (Pounds 85,000).

According to one survey, a person earning Pounds 26,000 in London would need to earn only Pounds 20,000 in Canberra to maintain the same standard of living.

Dr Marginson says: "Where we are not competitive is at the top of the range. We have not been up with the US since the 1970s. That's where an increasing number of Australian academics would like to move their jobs - to get the support structure to be a scholar, and to rid themselves of having to do administration."

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