Overseas scholars ease staff shortage

June 15, 2007

Foreign academics make up a fifth of the workforce. Tony Tysome reports.

One in three academics in some subjects is now from overseas, according to the latest figures, as universities increasingly rely on foreign staff to plug gaps left by a shortfall of home-grown researchers and teachers.

A Times Higher analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveals steep year-on-year rises in the number of international academics working in the UK over the past decade. International academics now represent more than a fifth of the sector's total academic workforce.

On current trends, this proportion will rise to 25 per cent in six years, and 50 per cent in 20 years.

At present, in electrical, electronic and computer engineering about a third (34 per cent) of staff are from overseas, in physics 31 per cent and maths 30 per cent. In social studies, clinical medicine and IT, about a quarter of academics are international.

The trend has been welcomed by university managers and staff alike, who think foreign academics add new strengths and bring fresh perspectives to teaching and research in British institutions.

But there are also concerns about the potential impact on career opportunities for UK academics and PhD students.

Clive Fraser, head of economics at Leicester University, said recruiters were "definitely getting better value for money from overseas staff", as more experienced academics were competing for the same posts as less experienced UK counterparts. He said departments were also short of UK candidates for posts.

"We have to get staff of the requisite quality, but there are not enough coming through in the UK," he said.

Research conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies has shown that overseas staff are plugging gaps in the supply of UK academics.

Linda Miller, IES senior research fellow, said: "Some subjects often have problems attracting UK PhD students, so there is a limited supply of young British academics in those areas."

Brian Everett, assistant general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We would be comforted if there were some reciprocity with countries exporting staff, so that UK academics could be offered jobs overseas and be rewarded for their experience. Unfortunately, that is often not the case."

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