UK benefits from brain drain

July 16, 1999

Foreign academics are flocking to work in the United Kingdom to fill posts left by a rise in staff turnover, according to research for the European Commission.

Analysis of figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that numbers of foreign academics employed by British universities doubled to 11,314 between 1994 and 1997.

But the report, by Sami Mahroum, a research fellow at the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies in Seville, shows most foreign academics are only going to work at certain, well-established research universities.

For example, between 1994 and 1997, the University of Cambridge received 840 foreign scholars, more than half its overall academic staff turnover, while Thames Valley University received only four.

Other universities with high numbers of foreign academics were Oxford, Imperial College, University College London and the University of Edinburgh.

Bottom of the list, taking into account total numbers of staff, are the universities of Lincolnshire and Humberside, Abertay Dundee, Paisley, Leeds Metropolitan and Thames Valley, where the proportion of overseas staff is about 4 per cent of total academic staff turnover.

Clinical medicine attracts most foreign academic staff -- 2,058 in 1997 - followed by biosciences, business and management and nursing and paramedical sciences. Electronics and information technology are also popular.

According to Mr Mahroum, the influx of academics is part of a general trend of foreign professionals coming to the UK.

He says most are from continental Europe, which accounts for about 45 per cent of the total inflow.

"But what makes this trend phenomenal, perhaps, is the concentration of these inflows in a number of prestigious and large universities and in some disciplines more than in others.

"This trend does not seem to be repeating itself to a similar extent across other European countries," he said.

He suggests this could be a result of high job mobility in the UK, particularly since the late 1980s.

Short-term contracts may appeal to foreign academics at the start of their academic careers or seeking promotion.

By taking short-term, higher- level positions in the UK they can boost their careers back home.

Competitive exercises, such as the research assessment exercise, may also encourage universities to employ staff from abroad.

But he warns that weaker institutions must receive attention or the UK will be "locked in" to few and limited pockets of excellence.

"Investing in excellence and supporting elite institutions is what attracts top talent from the rest of the world.

"Low-performing institutions like some of the new universities need more time to develop their niche and become centres of excellence," said Mr Mahroum.

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