Times Higher Education’s Power of Place survey
Most universities around the world are named after their locations. Many are – or aspire to be – anchors of their local communities, and most milk their local attractions for all they are worth in their student prospectuses.
Yet the life of the mind is one that can be lived anywhere – and that only seems likely to become ever truer as the Covid-19 pandemic hastens higher education’s digital migration. Moreover, the hierarchy of universities in terms of reputation, facilities and calibre of colleagues is such that location is often assumed to be a peripheral issue for staff – particularly academics – when they consider where to work.
Indeed, some countries in recent years have established new flagship universities in all manner of unlikely locations, with the expectation that the salaries and prestige they offer will see staff flocking to them regardless of how few restaurants they have on their doorsteps, how far they are from the sea or how hot or cold it is outside the lab.
Yet geographers have noted that, counter-intuitively, the tendency of educated people to congregate in specific urban locations has only increased in the digital era.
“One reason is that if you can live anywhere, you are more likely to choose places that are desirable,” says Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, who has written extensively on what he calls the “power of place”. “The other is the importance of physically being close to other economic actors with whom you interact, in order to facilitate mutual understanding and create and reproduce the bonds of trust that are really important when engaging in high-stakes economic transactions.”
So how much pulling power does a university’s location retain, over and above institutional strengths and weaknesses? Are there locations so disagreeable that people would avoid them regardless of the charms of the local higher education institution – or vice versa? And what aspects of university, department, country and city do university staff most value?
These are the issues Times Higher Education has sought to explore in our Power of Place survey. Completed by just under 600 respondents from 58 different countries, it reveals that a whole host of non-institutional factors can play a significant role in drawing and retaining staff – but also that the importance of these factors can vary considerably between regions, genders and career stages.
The first notable point about the results is that international mobility is not as widespread as might be supposed. Of the 592 academics and professional staff that answered the survey, 293 (49 per cent) remain in the country where they did their first degree. That figure, of course, may partly reflect the profile of the respondents. Although the majority are academics (who are typically regarded as more internationally mobile than professional staff), most are in humanities or social science, where international mobility is typically lower than in the sciences. In addition, 37 per cent are at lecturer/assistant professor level or below, so they have had fewer career stages at which to consider an international move. And 60 per cent are women, who, as we will see, appear to be less mobile than men.
It may also be significant that exactly half of respondents were UK citizens when they began their undergraduate degree, while another 10 per cent were Australian citizens and 8 per cent were US citizens: all countries with large and strong domestic university systems and relatively low levels of outward academic mobility; 63 per cent of the UK respondents have lived in only one country since their undergraduate degree – the highest proportion of any national group examined – compared with only 29 per cent of other Europeans.
Nevertheless, respondents display high levels of mobility between metropolitan centres. Only 16 per cent remain in the town, city or city region in which they did their undergraduate degree, while 35 per cent have lived in five or more cities since then, and 24 per cent have worked at five or more universities.
Among regional groupings, North Americans are the most mobile between cities and universities, with 61 per cent of respondents having lived in five or more cities and 36 per cent having worked at five or more universities. The least mobile grouping is Asians; only 23 per cent of the 53 respondents from that continent have worked in five or more cities and only 11 per cent in five or more universities. People currently in Asia are also the most likely respondents to have lived in their current city for more than 20 years: 59 per cent have done so, compared with just 29 per cent of North Americans.
As mentioned, men appear significantly more mobile than women. Since the beginning of their undergraduate degrees, 29 per cent of male respondents have lived in three or more countries, against 25 per cent of women; 41 per cent of men have lived in five or more cities, against 30 per cent of women; and 28 per cent of men have worked at five or more universities, against 21 per cent of women.
More than two-thirds of respondents (69 per cent) live and work in the same city. This is reflected in the fact that 60 per cent live within 10 miles of their university and 37 per cent live within five. Only 17 per cent live more than 25 miles away. Respondents in the UK and Europe live a little further away than other national groups, while respondents from Oceania and Asia live the closest: only 7 per cent and 5 per cent of respondents from these regions live more than 25 miles from their universities. The gender differences are fairly minor; women are slightly more likely (5 per cent versus 3 per cent) than men to live more than 100 miles away from their university.
Among those that do not live in the same city as their university, the most popular reason is that they prefer the town where they do live (33 per cent) or have family reasons to live where they do (30 per cent), such as caring commitments, a partner’s job or children’s school. The cost of housing in the university town is only cited by 11 per cent of respondents.
“I live in a commuter village outside of London, which supports family life (school and husband’s job). It is cheaper than living in London and I like the quality of life where I live,” says Lucy, a research integrity manager at a London Russell Group university (all names in this article are invented).
Some of the reasons expressed are more negative, however: a fear of crime in the university town, for instance, or a reliance among junior academics on short-term contracts, necessitating frequent changes of institution. Meanwhile, a UK-based female lecturer in the social sciences does not want to live close enough to her university “to encounter some of the staff I work with”.
Respondents typically live far from other members of their families. More than half (53 per cent) live more than 100 miles from their nearest parent or sibling, and nearly a third (31 per cent) live more than 500 miles away. That latter figure is particularly high in North America (48 per cent) and Oceania (45 per cent) and is lowest in Africa (27 per cent), Asia (28 per cent) and the UK (24 per cent). Among those who are originally from North America, the figure rises to 61 per cent, compared with 15 per cent for those in the UK – no doubt partly reflecting the relative sizes of Canada and the US compared with the UK. University staff originally from the European continent also travel far, with 48 per cent more than 500 miles from their nearest parent or sibling.
Among genders, women are a little more likely than men to live more than 500 miles from their nearest parent or sibling (33 per cent versus 28 per cent) and slightly less likely to live within 25 miles (27 per cent versus 30 per cent).
So what is the principal draw when university staff consider where to work? Is it the institution itself, the city or the country? Asked to give a score to each on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest, respondents rank the university top, with a grade point average of 3.80, compared with 3.73 for its city and 3.36 for its country.
However, those figures hide significant regional variations. The relative importance of university over city is highest for people originally from Asia, by a GPA difference of 0.36. By contrast, the difference is very low for staff originally from the UK, North America and Africa, while people from Oceania are unique in rating the city more important than the university, by a GPA of 0.1.
As we will see, the power of place appears particularly strong among people from Oceania; that group also rates country more important than university, although by a tiny margin. All other geographical groups rate university more important than country; those from the UK express that view most strongly.
The gender split is not particularly significant in this case; women are slightly more insistent than men on the importance of the university relative to its city or country and on the importance of city relative to country.
But what aspects of universities, cities and countries are most important to university staff? Is it the qualities of the university overall (such as its reputation, mission, management style, staff benefits or campus beauty), the qualities of specific departments (such as reputation, colleagues, students, focus or management style) or the specifics of the job offer (such as salary, duties, benefits or seniority of the position)?
Respondents from all regions rate the specifics of the offer as the most important factor, with an overall GPA of 3.96. The qualities of the department (3.66) are also considered more important than those of the university overall (3.64) in all regions but Europe and especially Asia. Gender differences are fairly minimal.
Among job-related factors, the balance of duties among teaching, research, outreach and administration is considered the most important factor, outstripping the salary and benefits package among respondents from all regions (and especially Oceania), apart from Europe, where the two factors are rated equally important. Salary is also rated more important than the seniority of the position in all regions, especially North America. Gender differences are, again, insignificant.
Qualities of the university and department
Asked if there were any other university-related factors that they saw as important when considering their current position, a male senior manager in Australia cites his university’s “values”, which he defines as “excellence, equity, engagement and sustainability”. Career development pathways, research focus, the security of the institution’s finances and the generosity of its pension scheme are also mentioned. A female social science lecturer in Malaysia flags up academic culture: “My university is totally devoid of it, which is my biggest disappointment.”
Others cite more domestic considerations. “[The university] was close to where I lived,” notes Claudia, a UK-based German principal lecturer in the arts and humanities. For a female, UK-based social sciences professor originally from Canada, the deciding factor was that “my husband and I were both able to get jobs at the same university.”
But others admit to never having thought about the qualities of their prospective institution in any detail. “I was young. I had no idea what to look for in a job. Most of the really important things didn’t occur to me until years afterwards,” says a female, UK-based mathematics lecturer originally from New Zealand. And a female, UK-based professional in research support took her job six years ago because it was “a good opportunity that matched my skill set. I knew relatively little about the institution in terms of the factors raised [in the survey]. However, these considerations have become very important as I’ve looked to progress in my career and are reasons for my staying at this institution. They are also now factors that I would look at if I were to ever move university.”
Others candidly admit that just having a job offer at all was all that mattered to them, given the difficulty of the job market. This is particularly true among those who were junior when they moved to their current institution.
“It is the only place I felt I could get a job,” confides a female UK architecture lecturer. “There is minimum pressure and politics.”
Asked which qualities of their universities respondents most underestimated when they were considering whether to move there, the most popular answer by far is its management style, cited by 37 per cent of respondents. For instance, a British social science professor complains about his Swedish university’s “level of slavish bureaucracy and [in]ability to take decisions”.
Jenny, a female American archaeology professor, complains of her UK institution’s “autocracy”. “Higher administration is always meddling with what we do, yet we are on the front line. This was not true at my former university in Canada, where academic staff were considered the drivers and admin people were there to help, not thinking up things to fix when they ain’t broke.”
On the manager’s side, meanwhile, Mary, a female American senior manager in Canada, complains of the “oppressive unionised environment” in the country in general and at her institution in particular. “The climate at this university is hostile and toxic. However, in a closed search for senior administration, there is no way to properly get to know the climate/nature of a place.”
The next most underestimated university-related factors are the university’s reputation/ranking position and its level of diversity or internationalisation, cited by 13 and 12 per cent of respondents respectively. The architectural/natural beauty of the campus are also frequently cited, especially by respondents originally from Oceania and Africa, and by women. Significantly more female than male respondents also underestimated the importance of their university’s management style and workplace policies and benefits (such as flexible working, parental leave or childcare arrangements), while more men underestimated the importance of their university's reputation/ranking and its mission or focus (such as employability or equity).
“The quality of my colleagues and the general environment in the department” is cited as an underestimated positive by José, a male Spanish head of department in the UK. This sentiment is shared by numerous others – although one respondent experienced the contrary surprise: an “illiterate social studies faculty”.
Other underestimated factors mentioned include university size (“mine is small, which has pros and cons”) and salary (“I’ve never had more than a 2.5 per cent raise”). The gender pay gap was underestimated by Grace, a female UK professor in environmental studies – or, rather, “the extent to which promotions and pay awards relied on notoriously gender-biased measures of esteem”, such as major fellowships or awards. “I’m working to help adjust these mistakes now. I’d rather have been forewarned.”
Curiously, management style is also the most popular answer when respondents are asked which university-related factor they most overestimated the importance of, cited by 30 per cent. Ranking or reputation is also second again, cited by 20 per cent, followed by the university’s mission/focus, cited by 14 per cent. Apart from reputation/ranking, the latter is also the only factor whose importance was more overestimated than underestimated.
In terms of what drew and retains them, some respondents were and are torn between more idealistic and more pragmatic factors. “I would prefer to work in a university that is less highly ranked and has greater diversity of students and staff,” says a female arts and humanities lecturer in Australia. “However, the working conditions and funding at those universities at the moment is terrible and I fear that I would not be able to do the work I would like to do there anyway. Having a secure job and being able to travel to work by bicycle are big factors for me in where I am at present.”
For academics affiliated with particular departments, the interests and quality of their colleagues is the most important pull factor (with a GPA of 3.76), followed by its specific teaching or research focus (3.65) and, some distance behind, its reputation or ranking (3.29) and quality of its students (3.19).
However, respondents originally from Asia regard reputation/ranking as more important than considerations about their colleagues, with specific teaching/research focus more important than either. And while the department’s level of diversity is the least important factor overall, it is the most important for respondents originally from Africa.
Female respondents are also significantly more concerned than men are about their department’s diversity – as well as its management style and the interests/quality of their colleagues. Men are more concerned than women about the department’s specific teaching or research focus and slightly more about its reputation.
Collegiality is another departmental factor whose importance is frequently commented on.
“The factors that made me choose and accept the job are not the same factors that would motivate me now,” says a female UK-based reader in social sciences. “Now I would be much more motivated by colleagues to collaborate with, and the teaching/work balance.” Or, as Daphne, a postdoctoral researcher in Cyprus, puts it: “I want to surround myself with people who are both intelligent and kind-hearted at the same time.”
Other departmental factors receiving several mentions are interdisciplinarity, quality of office space, autonomy (or “the freedom to do things my way instead of following others and making the same mistakes”, as a male business lecturer in Australia puts it) and the existence of specific facilities.
But many respondents note the difficulty of obtaining information about the internal workings of universities and departments ahead of taking a job: “Management style and governance aren’t easy to judge as externals, so even if they play significant roles in the individual’s decision making, the lived experiences do not necessarily match the expectation,” notes a female professional in international affairs at a university in Taiwan.
“Diversity and research culture are very important to me and very transparent but I did not know about the management style, quality of colleagues, etc when I took the job,” says a female head of an arts and humanities department in the UK. “These aspects are also important but less transparent; you have to find out over time in the role.”
Judgements are particularly difficult to make from large geographical distances – or, at least, they were before the internet era. “I’ve been at the same university for 26 years,” says John, a male British head of an engineering department in Australia. “There was very little information available about most of the issues [in this survey]. What was there was in hard copy and difficult to come by from the other side of the world.”
Moreover, even if the information is available, things can change over time – especially as institutional leaders come and go. A British male social science professor complains that, since he joined, his institution has come to “embrace an intrusive managerial ethos and culture that has drawn resources away from teaching and research and led to an unacceptable increase in managerial positions: bullshit jobs essentially”.
And Belinda, a female social science professor in Australia but originally from New Zealand, complains that “over time, management style changed and has now made the place toxic, leading to my retirement. I now operate in an honorary position at another university which is over 1000km from where I live.”
Indeed, disagreeable institutional culture is mentioned in picturesque terms several times in respondents’ comments, with complaints about a “poisonous atmosphere” and a “highly toxic culture and dishonesty”.
And some respondents, again, admit that what retains them isn’t anything specific about their current university or department as much as a lack of other options.
“I stayed because I got stuck and lost confidence,” says a male, UK-based reader in environmental science. “Research facilities I used that were there when I arrived were removed and replaced with stuff for other people, and no one here is in the same field as me. I never got the hang of persuading people to give me funding, so I’ve lived on scraps and the kindness of others. I haven’t thought that any other university would want me for the last 15+ years, so I’ve kept below the radar and just carried on going round the hamster wheel.”
The non-institutional qualities of university towns are clearly important to many university staff: “This is my favourite town in the world and I always wanted to live here,” says a female social science lecturer from continental Europe, who now lives in Brighton, UK.
Asked about which characteristics of their university’s specific town, city or city region were particular draws for them, respondents in all global regions rate commuting distances as the most significant, by some distance. Quality of local amenities and opportunities for partners or families are also commonly cited. People originally from North America rate as particularly important the city’s cost of housing and its socio-political character – perhaps reflecting the partisan political divide in the US. Asians are particularly concerned about the city’s proximity to other cities, while Africans, again, cite diversity. Those from Oceania rank the importance of geographical factors, such as proximity to the mountains or ocean, more highly than other groups do.
Factors relating to home towns and cities
Men’s and women’s ranking of city-related factors do not differ enormously except when it comes to diversity, which women rate as the seventh most important factor out of the 16 listed, while men put it only 13th. More strikingly, diversity is one of only two of the factors – the other being commuting distances – to which women give a higher absolute score. That contrasts with the university-related factors, four out of six of which women score more highly than men do. And it belies the fact that, as mentioned, men and women give very similar scores when asked to rate the overall importance of university versus city.
Asked which aspect of its town or city they most underestimated when deciding whether to move to their current university, responses vary considerably by region. The quality and range of amenities is the top choice of respondents in the UK and Oceania, while North Americans, Europeans and Asians plump for socio-political character. Africans choose commuting distances.
Those last two factors are also the joint top most underestimated factor for women, while men cite amenities. However, more men than women also suggest that they overestimated the importance of amenities, while more women say they overestimated the importance of their town’s proximity to others. Overall, each factor was, again, overestimated and underestimated by similar proportions of respondents, perhaps reflecting its relative prominence in people’s minds.
Other important city-related factors mentioned include good public transport options – or the lack of need for them: “I was happy to see that one could walk everywhere,” says a full professor at Ithaca’s Cornell University. “Access to facilities that support my hobbies (craft stores and groups)” is mentioned by a female Australian lecturer in urban planning now at Cardiff University. And a female reader at the University of Sheffield originally from continental Europe praises Sheffield’s “fascinating” geography; “its proximity to places of great beauty and national parks is definitely a great asset, as is the warmth of people who live here. I would rank those equally highly,” she says.
Domestic considerations, again, figure highly in what first drew people to their current cities. “Whether it is a place I would want to raise my children” is cited by a female social science reader at the University of Oxford. “My husband-to-be lived there,” says Claudia, the German lecturer in the UK. “It was the closest I could find employment relative to where my family lives,” adds a female UK-based lecturer in physical science.
For others, the operative factors were even more pragmatic: “I took a job at the only university in my town. I had no reason to even consider anything else,” says a female Australian lecturer in enabling education. “We found a house we really wanted and we could also afford,” adds Julie, a female social science professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University.
But others, again, admit to not having considered the city at all when deciding whether to take their job. “I had never visited the city or even the country until the week before my first day of work,” says John, who relocated from the UK to Australia.
“I really knew little about where I was going to live. I have been very lucky to have lived there. Not so fortunate to have got into a small remote institution at a time of diminishing resources,” adds a male New Zealander now based in Bowral, New South Wales.
Meanwhile, Bradley, a male Australian postdoc in the arts and humanities, puts it even more starkly: “I fucking hate this city, but I wanted a job and it was here. Nobody can be choosy.”
Yet Toronto’s Gertler dismisses the suggestion that place is only an important draw for the most senior and high-flying faculty, who have the luxury of choosing between institutions. He himself was drawn to Canada’s biggest city as a junior academic in the mid-1980s, partly on account of its institutional strength but also because, having spent “a good deal” of his childhood there, he had personal connections to it and also knew its qualities to be “one of the best kept secrets around”. And he has made an active effort to leverage those qualities when recruiting faculty at all levels.
“We find ourselves competing for junior faculty with other great institutions – certainly in North America and often beyond that,” he says. “Even at that level, the attributes of the city are quite important – and that makes sense because when you are at early stages of your career you are more likely to be having kids, so you think about things like the safety of neighbourhood and the quality of schools and daycare.”
As for the qualities of countries that staff most appreciate, the most important factor by some distance is its familiarity to them.
“I am a citizen of the country and am very attached to it, especially having lived in other countries throughout my life,” says Bethany, a female Australian life sciences professor. Others remain in their country for more pragmatic reasons: “my husband is only trained and able to work in the UK. If I had been single, I would not have chosen to work in the UK,” says a British professional in internationalisation and work placements.
In some cases there is also a sense that charity begins at home: “I wanted to return to my home country after studying in the UK because I felt I could make a more meaningful contribution here,” says a female social sciences reader from South Africa.
A country’s appealing qualities
Other important qualities of countries, according to our respondents, are personal connections, language spoken and culture. The least important are climate and, perhaps surprisingly, the cost or ease of obtaining visas or permanent residency.
There is little difference between the genders. Men rank culture slightly higher (second) than women do (fourth), but, otherwise, the most noteworthy observation is that, as before, men rate all country-related factors as more important, in absolute terms, than women do.
A female Canadian social sciences professor values her city particularly highly because it is “a good place to be an out gay person”, while a physical scientist from New Zealand thought her relocation to Iceland four years ago “would be an amazing adventure – and it has been”.
Asked which country-related factors they most underestimated when deciding whether to move to their current university, respondents in the UK and Europe, as well as men as a whole, plump for its cost of living. Respondents in North America and Oceania, as well as women overall, cite its culture.
“One tends to think of New Zealand and Australian culture being much the same but they are NOT,” notes Belinda.
Respondents in Asia and Africa cite the country’s political character (alongside, in Asia’s case, personal connections and the cost/ease of obtaining permanent residency). But specific comments about politics generally relate to the US and UK.
“I moved [to the US] as my husband and I were able to get jobs at the same university,” says Julie. “I am Canadian and my husband is American. A positive benefit is that Detroit is just across the river from Windsor, Ontario, so I could visit my home country quite easily.” Similarly, Mary, the American senior manager in Canada, values her location because “it isn’t the US, but it’s close by. The US political climate drove me away.”
Brexit is also mentioned by several respondents, including José, the Spaniard in the UK. “I did not expect Brexit to happen and the position of Europeans to weaken so much,” he laments.
Other aspects of bureaucracy are a concern for a British life sciences professor in Canada: “There was so much to deal with for the move that the finer details, such as the completely different systems for health benefits and taxes, were not as prominent on my radar as they should have been!” they say.
Meanwhile, a British lecturer in the arts and humanities “had not realised until I had to engage with it how Byzantine, inconsistent, inefficient, cruel and extortionately expensive the UK system for family visas is. If I had gone to settle in my wife’s home country instead of her moving here, I would have been able to obtain a visa much more easily and at much lower cost.”
Asked about what they overestimated the importance of regarding their current country of residence, common answers are its political character (the top factor in North America and Oceania and joint top in the UK), familiarity (top in Asia and Africa, and joint top in the UK) and personal connections (top in Europe). Women most frequently cite culture, while men again opt – by some margin – for cost of living.
Nevertheless, overall, the importance of cost of living is significantly more underestimated than overestimated, as is culture, while the reverse is true for familiarity and political character.
Can country trump university?
An interesting question – particularly for organisations and countries considering whether and where to establish a new, ambitious university – is whether there are certain institutions or locations that are so inherently attractive to university staff that they would take jobs there regardless of other factors.
Asked whether there are universities they would work at, regardless of their inherent qualities, purely on the basis of the attractiveness of their country, more respondents in every category agree than disagree. The sentiment is particularly strong among people originally from North America, 67 per cent of whom agree or strongly agree, as well as those from Europe and Oceania; it is weakest in Asia, where 53 per cent share the sentiment. Among women, 57 per cent agree, compared with 53 per cent of men.
“I want to work in my country of birth,” says a female British social science professor still based in the UK. Contrariwise, “since Brexit I would be willing to work almost anywhere in Europe but here”, says a male British reader in engineering.
Wayne State’s Julie, meanwhile, would return to her native Canada “in a heartbeat” – but only if “a good job opportunity arose”.
What about the converse? Are there existing universities that are so inherently attractive for institutional reasons that people would work at them despite the unattractiveness of their country? The answer, generally, is no. In all regions, the number of people who disagree with the proposition outweighs the number who agree, particularly in the UK, where the difference is 37 percentage points, North America (33) and continental Europe (32).
The gender divide is also significant. Just 21 per cent of women would choose a particular university regardless of country, compared with 27 per cent of men. And 59 per cent of women would not, against 48 per cent of men.
“The university does not exist in a vacuum,” comments Daphne, the postdoc in Cyprus. “I want to have a life outside of the campus too, and I wish to trust the rest of the society, who are not immediately hired by the same institution as me.”
A female Canadian arts and humanities lecturer in the UK adds: “Unless someone happened to just hand me a job at an Ivy League university, I have no intention of working outside Canada or the UK.” And a UK-based American social sciences lecturer would “not move my children for any job”.
But one female registrar in Egypt is convinced that a university with a high reputation “will give me an exceptional experience and add to my career”, so would take a job there wherever it was.
Can city trump university?
What about more local factors? Can an attractive city lure staff regardless of the university’s quality? It seems so. In all regions, most respondents agree that there are universities they would work at, regardless of their inherent qualities, purely on the basis of the attractiveness of their city. The sentiment is, again, strongest in North America, where 76 per cent of respondents agree or strongly agree, compared with 51 per cent of people in Asia. The sentiment is also much stronger among women (63 per cent) than among men (54 per cent). The difference in the proportion of people who disagree and agree is lowest in the UK.
The contrary question generates less consensus. Asked to what extent they agree that there are existing universities so inherently attractive that they would work at them despite the unattractiveness of their town or city, 45 per cent of respondents disagree, against 30 per cent who agree. Negative sentiment is strongest by far among respondents from Oceania, where 56 per cent disagree, against just 21 per cent who agree. All other regions also express a negative verdict except Asia, where 34 per cent agree that a good university can trump an unattractive town, while only 28 per cent disagree.
Which factors outweigh others when considering where to work?
Once again, though, the gender divide is starkest. Exactly half of female respondents disagree with the proposition, against 39 per cent of men. It seems, then, that while women don’t regard factors related to cities and countries as inherently more important than men do, relative to university-related factors, they do have a stronger sense both that there are certain countries and cities they would not choose regardless of how good the university was and that there are certain locations they would choose regardless of institutional factors.
“I’d be unhappy if I hated the city or town or region where the university is situated,” says Jenny, the American archaeologist in the UK, while Bethany, the Australian life scientist, would “consider” working at a university regardless of its city or country – “but for a limited period of time: not indefinitely”.
Toronto’s Gertler is not surprised by the suggestions that women may be more sensitive to environment than men are. “In spite of all the advances we have made in terms of gender policy, there are still some deeply entrenched…divisions of labour” within heterosexual households, he notes, whereby women are often “saddled with more of the domestic responsibilities”. And “if they are the ones who have to juggle work life, home life and looking after children, it is entirely logical that they would be sensitive to the ways in which the city and the neighbourhood they live in make that easier or not so easy.”
In all regions, the vast majority of respondents agree that there are universities that they would never consider working at, purely on account of their specific locations. The sentiment is strongest among people originally from Oceania (92 per cent) and North America (91 per cent) and weakest among Asian respondents (62 per cent). Looking at gender, 85 per cent of women agree, against 79 per cent of men.
Overall, people in Asia seem less choosy about location and more focused on institutional factors, particularly in comparison with people in North America and Asia. Gertler suggests that one “sweeping generalisation” that may form part of the explanation is that the variability in the quality of life between cities in countries in Asia – particularly the east of the continent – is not as great as in North America. In the US, especially, “you have very desirable cities that are growing and have rising levels of per-capita income and others where income disparities and poverty are entrenched and getting worse and where other symptoms of social dysfunction are quite apparent”.
For some respondents, their non-negotiables relate to lifestyle preference: “I would not work far away from my family,” says Claudia, the German lecturer. “I am so used to city life that a rural university would not in any way attract me,” adds Jenny.
But, for others, the issues are more ideological.
“I would not work in a location with a poor record on environmental protection, human rights, treatment of women or animal welfare,” says a female British professional in strategic planning.
“I cannot work in a country with little freedom of speech/freedom of expression/freedom of the press,” adds a female senior manager in international partnerships, originally from Hong Kong but now in Canada.
“I will not consider working in the US in the current political climate, despite having lived/worked there previously in a very positive situation,” declares a female Canadian admissions professional in the UK.
A female physical sciences lecturer at the University of Canberra is particularly inflexible: “I will only work in Canberra.”
Mobility and happiness
So, all this considered, is national and international mobility one of the perks of a university career? Men are more likely (66 per cent) than women (59 per cent) to assent to that proposition. Respondents from Europe (81 per cent) and Oceania (71 per cent) are the most likely geographical group to value mobility, and those in the UK the least (53 per cent).
“My life has been enriched by being an academic,” says a female Asian agriculture professor in Australia. “I have studied, worked, attended congresses, reviewed other universities’ schools/departments and holidayed in 88 countries. At the tail end of my academic life, I feel exceedingly blessed to have been an academic.”
Others are more cautious: “Being able to move between countries for conferences, collaborations and jobs is a benefit,” says a male UK-based arts and humanities lecturer. However, “the desperately short supply of jobs and the extreme casualisation of academic jobs means that many academics are forced to relocate frequently. In the past, I have had to commute between two jobs in different countries in order to make enough money to pay my bills.”
Several respondents also note that the expectation that staff will move around unfairly disadvantages those that cannot.
“Most people do not have the ability to just move around. Family ties, finances and cultural barriers make this hard, especially as people get older,” notes a female head of a life sciences department in the UK.
“Enforced mobility is a pox that excludes people with disabilities, caring responsibilities and all those who simply like their home town and would rather stay there,” adds Bradley, the Australian postdoc. “This cult that acts as if you need to keep uprooting yourself or you’re not a serious academic needs to be banished forever. I just want a job in Melbourne, but because I got my degree in Melbourne…I had to move to a garbage city where I know no one.”
Is international mobility a good thing?
And several commenters pick up on the potential gendered consequences of mobility hinted at in the survey statistics.
Mobility is “not a ‘perk’ for most female university staff, who find themselves tied by family commitments. It’s a ‘perk’ for those who can use it to gain pay increases that lead to strong gender biases in the sector, particularly at the upper pay levels,” says Grace, the female environmental sciences professor in the UK.
How much people value mobility perhaps partly reflects how happy they are in their current circumstances More than half of respondents – 55 per cent – agree or strongly agree that they would like to stay at their current university long term, against only 21 per cent who disagree or strongly disagree. Positivity is strongest among people currently in the UK (59 per cent) and weakest in North America (43 per cent). Men and women are equally likely to be content with their current university, although women are more likely to strongly agree that they would like to remain where they are.
Views about current locations are more mixed. Asked if they would like to live in their current town/city/region even if they were not required to do so for job purposes, 81 per cent of respondents in Oceania agree – 51 per cent of them strongly. By contrast, only 43 per cent of people in North America feel the same. But, in all regions, many more respondents agree than disagree with the proposition. The gender difference, again, is insignificant except for slightly greater proportion of women (35 versus 31 per cent) who strongly agree that they would like to remain in their current location.
Again, the reasons expressed are a mixture of practical considerations and personal preferences, with family looming large. “I used to have elderly parents in the area but since they died, I have no connection other than work. This means that I travel every weekend to be with my family and lodge during the week,” says a male, UK-based reader in engineering. A female arts and humanities professor also notes that a lot can change when you have lived and worked in the same place for nearly 20 years: “Living 200 miles from my late parents did not seem to be a problem when I took the job, but became very difficult while they became elderly, ill and needed my care in their final years.”
Some respondents also raise the complexities of childcare: “My position requires that I travel a lot,” says an associate professor of education in South Africa. “I would not have been able to do this without the childcare support network I have established for myself where I currently live and work. If I were to move, I would not have this...My university is not very family-friendly when it comes to supporting staff with children.”
Some respondents express wistful visions of where they would really like to live. “In an ideal world, I’d like to live on an island and aim for self-sufficiency,” says a female UK lecturer in English for academic purposes. “But I can’t afford the island (is there one that won’t be inundated?) and am too old to be self-sufficient!”
But, for others, anywhere would be better than their current location. “I would not walk across the street if it only cost a dime to go to class in this deep, dark pit of ignorance,” says a US lecturer in social science. “And that is just the social science faculty.”
The elephant in the room when discussing the power of place is, of course, the pandemic. Does place suddenly feel even more important when you are locked down and confined to a small geographical area for months on end? Or has the realisation that remote working is perfectly (or at least imperfectly) possible for university staff actually made place less of an issue – particularly if mass online teaching extends beyond the pandemic?
These are big questions that respondents might not have got their heads around in April, when the survey was carried out and when many national lockdowns were still in their early stages. This is reflected in the fact that, asked if the crisis has affected their priorities about where to locate themselves for work, a very high 25 per cent of respondents have no particular view. But, for what it is worth, 41 per cent overall agree or strongly agree, against 34 per cent who disagree or strongly disagree.
Slightly more women than men (42 versus 39 per cent) agree that Covid-19 has affected their location priorities. But the geographical breakdown is more noteworthy. Affirmation among people originally from Africa (59 per cent) and Oceania (56 per cent) is much stronger than among those from North America (32 per cent), the UK (36 per cent) and Asia (38 per cent).
“I do dislike having to take a commuter train and the Tube to get to work,” says Lucy, the research integrity manager who works in London. “I have thought about moving to an institution that I could drive to, to avoid public transport, but the draw of the institution I work at is too great to really make me want to move.”
Has Covid-19 changed respondents’ priorities?
A female arts and humanities lecturer in the US notes that “locations where government officials are not taking precautions [against the virus] makes me rethink moving to those areas should a position become available”. And noting the widespread criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, a female social science professor in Australia comments: “I was never a fan of living in the US but now I’m certain I never would.”
Family considerations, it seems, play a relatively insignificant role in people’s thinking about Covid-19. When those living “a long way” from friends or family are asked whether they are considering relocating as a result of the coronavirus to be closer to them, most disagree – especially those from Asia, North America and Oceania.
“My home country, New Zealand, has handled this crisis incredibly well in my opinion and I am proud to be a Kiwi,” notes an admissions professional. “However, as a Kiwi married to a Scot, my second home is now Scotland and I never considered returning ‘home’ as this is now home, too.”
Meanwhile, a female social sciences lecturer originally from continental Europe but now in the UK comments: “I think this depends on your relationship with your family. I am happy to live in a different country from the rest of my family.”
Toronto’s Gertler notes that the pandemic has had “a levelling effect for those who feel they are more peripherally located relative to major centres of academic activity. Scholars in Australia, for example, feel more connected to the rest of the world than ever before because everyone’s willingness to jump on a Zoom call has gone way up: that will probably endure for some time.”
However, he is sceptical that cities will become less desirable locations to live and work on account of the ease with which contagions can spread around them. While some people may have moved out of cities recently, he suggests that many simply brought forward decisions they were already ready, at their life stage, to make.
“When the dust has settled [on the pandemic]…I think people will re-embrace the possibility of being together socially,” he predicts. And if he were to establish an ambitious global university from scratch, he would still locate it in a big city.
“It is not just about the liveability on a daily basis but also nature of local economy,” he explains. “Often, when we are hiring academics, we are dealing with the two-body problem,” whereby the academic’s partner – who is often not an academic – also needs to be able to find a job.
But he adds that the choice of country for a new institution would also be important. The ideal jurisdiction would have three main qualities. First, “borders are open to the kind of people we want to attract”. Second, “universities are well supported by the public sector; academics are highly attuned to those kinds of signals that come from governments”. And, third, academic freedom and freedom of expression are permitted: “in many countries there are constraints on how free academics can be in expressing their views.”
Such factors are, of course, beyond university leaders’ control. And the responses to THE’s survey serve as a reminder that whatever the general trends, each person’s combination of circumstances, preferences and state of mind is unique. That, of course, is part of the rich tapestry of human life – but no doubt it makes the job of university leaders seeking to recruit the best talent that much harder.