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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 July, 2004, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
'Brain gain' in UK universities
By Shola Adenekan

Fiona Moore
Canadian Fiona Moore is staying in the UK
Young and foreign-born, Fiona Moore symbolises the growing strength of British academia.

Before the 28 year old could even think of returning to her native Canada during a post-doctoral spell at Oxford University, she was lured by Kingston University.

Dr Moore, an industrial anthropologist, says she finds Kingston a good place to work because of its commitment to research and the level of support it affords new academics.

"At larger universities I would not have this degree of support," she says.

Football effect?

"As to the advantages of staying in Britain over returning to Canada: for one thing, the North American tenure-track system, in which lecturers compete for permanent places at a single university based on the volume of their publications and ability to attract the more prestigious administrative jobs, places what I feel is an unreasonable burden on young academics."

For Yiftach Barnea, an Israeli mathematician who recently joined Royal Holloway, University of London from the University of Wisconsin, the attraction was the high quality of mathematical research in the UK.

"Many British mathematicians are leaders in their fields," he says.

"In addition, I found that one of the members of the department of mathematics is Professor Blackburn with whom I share common research interest."

It is probably the British football effect spilling over into academia.

When it comes to recruiting research and academic talents, British universities are increasingly looking abroad.

They say they no longer recognise national boundaries and are instead looking for fresh eyes and perspectives.

Key subjects

A recent study carried out by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) points to a net gain of academics in the UK.

The author of the report, Stephen Court, says the main areas in which the UK has a brain gain are science and engineering.

"Subject areas with a large net gain include clinical medicine, biosciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, business studies and computing.

"These disciplines are vital ones in terms of extending the UK's knowledge base and improving our business skills."

Both the new recruits and their employers see these trends as the result of global market forces.

British educators, they say, have long been internationally mobile and it makes sense for British universities to be open to talents from elsewhere.

"Academia is a global discipline," says Dr Moore.

"If the UK were to limit itself solely to hiring local researchers, it would soon find itself behind times.

"It is worth pointing out that a number of the greatest British innovations were developed by British researchers working overseas."


Royal Holloway's principal, Prof Stephen Hill, agrees.

Prof Stephen Hill
Prof Stephen Hill: Talent hunt
"We are always looking for the very best. We define quality in terms of contribution to research as well as teaching and learning. We recruit talent where we find it."

While Oxford and Cambridge universities have always attracted overseas talent, the brain gain fever is spreading across the country.

Aberdeen University is stepping up its recruitment drive on the back of its 600th anniversary by launching a £9m campaign to hire more than 200 staff of "outstanding intellectual quality" over the next three years.

"It is a now very competitive market and we are looking for the best lecturers," says Prof Dominic Houlihan, vice-principal, research and commercialisation.

"Our advertising slogan is tagged the Sixth Centuries Campaign. We also advertise in papers for academics.

"When you are dealing with this kind of stuff, you can't restrict yourself. We'll be crazy not to take somebody from Harvard, Cambridge or the Sorbonne, for example. Good people make great universities."

Peter Clift
The time is right for Peter Clift to return from the US
That campaign is luring Peter Clift, 37, from the United States back to the UK.

Frustrated with research opportunities in the UK, the geology professor left for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, a few years ago but now says he is impressed by the attitude of Aberdeen administrators.

"The reason I went to the US is because I needed a research positions which was unavailable in the UK then," he says.

"It's the right offer at the time. Now I'm getting a position that suits my need."

But experts think British universities should be paying more attention to nurturing home-grown talent.

"It should be a matter of concern that we are having to import academic talent in areas which are central to the so-called knowledge economy," warns Mr Court.

Pay and career prospects

"There is evidence of decline in new entrants to the academic profession in the UK in chemistry, maths and information technology. It appears we are importing talent to make good our loss in these key areas.

"Improving academic pay will help, but we need to take stock of the situation and consider how to make academic careers more attractive to people in the UK."

However, university administrators say they are not in danger of failing to nurture home-grown talent by looking overseas. They put the blame on poor government funding.

The cash-flow problem at British universities is stark. Between 1989 and 2002, government spending per student fell 37% in real terms as the number of students increased by 94%, according to Universities UK, an association of university heads.

Faculty-student ratios have worsened. While the United States spent 2.7% of its gross national product on higher education in 2000, Britain spent 1%.

Moreover, as Prof Clift points out, many British-based companies do not support research as their American counterparts do.

"We are acutely aware of the need to make the academic profession a more attractive profession for our own UK graduates and to reflect the multicultural and ethnic diversity of modern Britain," says Prof Peter Scott, Kingston University's vice-chancellor.

"The government should help by funding universities more adequately and so enable us to pay more competitive salaries."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said the government had reversed years of falling funding per student, and public funding of higher education would rise to £10bn by 2005-06.

Variable tuition fees would "provide universities with the extra funding they need to improve laboratories and lecture theatres, student accommodation and lecturers¿ salaries".

But Dr Peter Cotgreave, the director of the Save British Science campaign, is sceptical.

"Universities are looking overseas because the funding of the home system is not capable of producing and retaining enough world class home-grown academics," he says.

"We do not want to see a Little England approach. Science has always been a global activity, with many people regularly moving between countries, and this is the way it should be."

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