UK enjoys a brain gain in young talent

July 9, 2004

A brain gain in young academic talent from overseas is swelling the ranks of UK universities, new figures reveal.

Each year, thousands of young researchers from abroad are securing posts - adding the equivalent of a major university's entire academic workforce to the sector.

The data show a net gain of academics in the UK, settling the debate over whether the UK is an importer or exporter of researchers.

But far fewer overseas professors and senior academics are choosing careers in Britain, and increasing numbers of UK academics are leaving for posts abroad.

Stephen Court, the Association of University Teachers' senior research officer, who carried out the analysis, said: "It might be that institutions are trying to compensate for staff shortages in some subjects by recruiting overseas.

"Apart from clinical medicine, some of the subject areas showing the biggest net brain gain are biosciences, chemistry and physics. It could be that the recent scaling down of university provision in big science means that employers in higher education are having to look overseas for new staff."

He said gains were also evident in subjects such as electrical and software engineering, and business and management studies. UK academics in these fields are being increasingly lured to the private sector by high salaries.

The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show particular growth in the number of appointees from the EU and show a small drop in gains from the US, suggesting that UK salaries are still attractive to European researchers, but less competitive elsewhere.

Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, anticipated a rise in the number coming from eastern Europe, wooed by better salaries and conditions.

In 2001-02, 3,185 academics came to the UK, a 22 per cent increase on 1995-96. Two-thirds of the 2001-02 intake were aged 34 or under. Taking into account academics leaving the UK, there was a net gain of 1,750 academics in 2001-02. But only 95 academics on professorial grades came to the UK in the same period, compared with 125 in 1995-96.

The UK brain gain is most pronounced in the sciences, with a net gain of 360 academics in clinical medicine in 2001-02.

The study was carried out following claims made earlier this year by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, that "an estimated 1,000 academics have left jobs here for universities abroad, a quarter alone going to the US".

Responding to the findings, Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said universities in the UK were less hierarchical and more flexible than many in other European countries. But he warned that Britain needed to balance attracting overseas academics with ensuring there were sufficient opportunities for homegrown talent.

Lobby group Save British Science this week published a report calling on the Government to provide an extra £250 million for academic salaries in view of the increasingly global market for researchers.

Richard Joyner, chair of Save British Science, said importing academics from countries such as Russia and China was the only way to fill posts in areas such as maths that were unpopular with British graduates.

He added that Britain was competing with countries such as the US, Germany and Japan for talent in science and engineering and, if salaries did not rise, the UK would lose out.

Sir Paul Nurse, former chief executive of Cancer Research UK and president of Rockefeller University in New York City, warned, however, that the benefits of moving to the US were sometimes overstated. Salaries were higher, but there were hidden costs such as health insurance.

Research was usually funded for longer periods in Britain and for work that might not always produce fast results. "The US is more geared to short-term productivity and that can lead to a certain way of doing things," Sir Paul said.

  • The European Commission has tried to allay fears of an exodus of graduates to the US. It said that while 26,000 students left for the US in 2001, there were "40 million tertiary educated EU citizens".

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