Finding staff from abroad suits institutions and most of those hired, but there are downsides. Tony Tysome reports.
For Adisa Azapagic, moving to Britain to pursue an academic career has brought more opportunities than she could possibly have expected had she stayed in her home country, Bosnia.
Since taking up a British Council fellowship to come to the UK 15 years ago, she has risen through the ranks to become head of research for the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at Manchester University, Britain's biggest single-campus institution.
Her progress is quite an achievement, but it not unusual among the growing ranks of international staff who now account for more than a fifth of the UK's academic workforce.
As a foreign researcher and lecturer, Professor Azapagic has made the most of what the UK sector has to offer - relatively good working conditions, career options and a strong science base.
Now with a recruiter's hat on, she also has very clear views about the advantages of recruiting international academics from the point of view of UK institutions. "I would say we are getting really good value for money,"
she said. "We are able to recruit excellent staff from abroad for more competitive market prices because you often find that people are prepared to come to the UK not so much for the salary they will get, but more for being at a good university and having the opportunity to build a career."
Her outlook is shared by many departmental heads, who feel they can get more for their money by shopping around the globe to fill posts, The Times Higher has found.
Jeremy Levesley, head of mathematics at Leicester University, sees this as a key driver for the steady growth in the number of international academics working in British universities over the past ten years.
He said: "At one level, it's pure economics. For example, there are a lot of Russian scientists who are not in a permanent position and are on very low pay but who may be very experienced compared with UK academics; many of these would be prepared to take up a post for the money you are offering.
It means you can get a higher-level academic for the same price as a British one who may only be at the start of their career."
Most international staff who spoke to The Times Higher did not have a problem with this approach. From their point of view, the UK offers them a chance to fast-track their career, gain access to good facilities, broaden their experience and, in some cases, improve their English.
Nevertheless, there is an emerging concern that UK universities could be accused of exploiting international academics and contributing to a brain drain from their native countries.
Gezim Alpion, an Albanian lecturer in sociology and media studies at Birmingham University, said his research in the past five years had revealed that there is an "underclass" of academics from developing countries working in Britain who find it difficult to return home and are therefore "almost being held hostage by their institution".
He said: "I have uncovered evidence of experienced foreign academics being expected to start on a low pay band. They are very committed - that is how they have made it here. But many of them are stuck in hourly paid part-time jobs. They are a very reliable workforce, always happy to step in when needed, but they can often find it difficult to gain permanent lectureships."
And he added: "Britain is getting some of the world's best academics for less money. At some point, many of these academics may start to earn the salary they are entitled to, but it takes them much longer to get there than it would take a British academic. Many do not feel they can negotiate on their contract and are not in a position to return home. So they are almost being held hostage by their institution."
A survey of 123 universities across the Commonwealth carried out last year by the research policy unit of the Association of Commonwealth Universities found that, while most institutions from around the world were recruiting more international staff, UK universities have the highest proportion of foreign academics.
A report on the findings says anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of UK universities are using international recruitment agencies to attract senior academic and administrative staff from overseas.
It notes that for many countries that are net exporters of academic staff, this market represents an "unreplenishable drain on capacity" in their higher education systems.
This issue has been picked up by Education International, the umbrella group for international teachers and lecturers, which has joined forces with the University and College Union in a bid to encourage European policy-makers and higher education leaders to address it.
Monique Fouilhoux, Education International's senior co-ordinator for education and employment, said countries in Eastern Europe and Africa were particularly vulnerable to this brain-drain effect. "In some ways, there is a kind of exploitation going on at the moment. But this is less of a problem for the individual academics than for the countries they are leaving, which can no longer benefit from their skills," she said.
Another factor that is fuelling growth in the number of international staff is a critical shortage of home-grown PhD students, which restricts the supply of early-career academics from within the UK. This is in stark contrast to a continually rising number of international PhD students, some of whom go on to take up academic posts.
There is concern that this trend could lead to ever fewer opportunities for young British academics, which would depress even further the supply of UK PhD students.
Brian Everett, assistant general secretary of the UCU, said: "This trend could have a knock-on effect in the UK, where many students are not making it into academia because the jobs are not there."
Many recruiters acknowledge that this is an issue, but most believe the trend is an inevitable consequence of the internationalisation of higher education.
Simon Tormey, head of Nottingham University's School of Politics and International Relations, where about half of all academics come from abroad, said: "We have almost reached the stage where we no longer consider the question of whether or not an academic is from overseas, such is the global nature of the market."
IT MIGHT NOT BE AS SIMPLE AS SOME BELIEVE, BUT FOR ACADEMICS FROM ABROAD, A POSITION IN THE UK IS A PASSPORT TO THE CAREER FAST TRACK
Despite the continuing growth in the number of international staff, Dayong Zhang from China argues that it can be difficult for academics from outside the European Union to secure a post in the UK.
He said: "One of the big barriers is the fact that we have to get a work permit to come here. To apply for a position, you have to fill in an equal opportunities form, which includes a question about whether you need to obtain a work permit to take up the job. That's when you realise you don't really have an equal opportunity."
Dr Zhang, an economics teaching fellow at Leicester University, said he thought the rising number of international staff was a matter of supply and demand.
Although it is sometimes hard for international staff to climb the career ladder in Britain, they can often reap rewards when they return home.
"I think a lot of Chinese academics see coming to the UK as a transitional phase. It means they can get a good job when they go back to China," he said.
Coming to work in the UK allows many European academics to find a permanent position more quickly than they could at home, says Bettina Wilm, a German biomedical sciences lecturer at Liverpool University.
"I wanted to come to the UK because I could get a permanent post within three years, which is not possible in Germany, where you have to spend five years establishing yourself and then move to another institution to get a post. This means you get much better job security here," she said.
Although she would ideally like to return to Germany, she currently feels that she would have to give up too much to do so.
"Academics I speak to in Germany say to me that I am better off in the UK.
I know this is also the case for academics from Eastern Europe, who feel there is nothing for them if they return home," she added.
The competitive environment in British higher education is what is driving UK universities to cast their net across the globe to attract the best staff, argues Alexei Kornyshev, a Russian professor of chemistry at Imperial College London.
"Things like the research assessment exercise push UK universities to be more competitive. Because of that, the question of where people come from is of secondary importance," he said.
But even though the salaries offered and the living conditions can be attractive, it is the work itself and the available facilities that most international academics are interested in, he added.
"What academics are coming for is the challenge of a new environment and working with colleagues who are interested enough in you to offer you a job," he said.
Ioan Notingher faced a tough decision six years ago after completing his PhD at South Bank University.
He had to decide whether to return home to Romania or stay in the UK and try to secure a research post here.
With few well-paid or permanent research posts in Romania at the time, he opted to remain in Britain. Three jobs later, he now has a position as full-time physics lecturer at Nottingham University.
He said: "I think it was the best choice, even though things have now changed in Romania because there is more investment in the country.
"My family has also settled here now, so it is more difficult for me to go back. It is a shame, but we have to think about ourselves, our careers and our future," he said.
Steve Hewitt, a Canadian lecturer in American and Canadian studies at Birmingham University, says it is much easier for international academics to secure a post in the UK than it is for British academics to get work abroad.
Add to that an "exciting and dynamic" environment in British universities and a rich national culture, and it is not hard to see why so many academics are seeking jobs in the UK, he suggested.
"I have worked in the US, and although their universities are generally better resourced, the UK comes off best in terms of the overall working and living environment.
"Because it is such a relatively small country, it is also easier to get around to academic events. In Canada, I was lucky if I got to attend more than one event a year because of geographical restrictions," he said.