Scholars who boldly go

International mobility defines many academics’ careers?– but how should we weigh the costs and benefits to individuals, and their adopted homes?

February 27, 2020
Source: Getty

Academia has always been a peripatetic profession. The notion that scholarship thrives when ideas and people cross borders is as old as the hills across which academics have wandered.

Travel back a millennium, and the origins of Europe’s earliest universities can be traced to groups of students from different regions and countries, who drew together in Bologna and elsewhere.

Today, the international flow of students remains one of the defining characteristics of higher education, with about?5 million students travelling to study.

The same is true of academics, although the precise number of itinerants is harder to get a grip on.

According to a study produced for the Royal Society in 2017, almost 70 per cent of active UK researchers in the period 1996-2011 published articles in which they were affiliated with non-UK institutions, indicating that they had worked abroad at some point during the period. A 2019 report by Universities UK adds that 31 per cent of the 210,000 academics in the country are from overseas.

Although the UK is particularly international relative to most of its competitors, the same dynamics help to shape the research base of almost every university sector, for better or worse.

As the Royal Society report notes, the term “brain drain” was coined in a 1963 study on emigration of UK scientists to North America, although it suggests that today we should discuss “concepts of brain circulation or brain mobility – terms coined to better capture the diversity of mobility pathways”.

The freedom of movement we have grown used to faces challenges in 2020 – President Trump and Brexit among them (yes, those two again).

It is worth noting, too, that there are new power players in the game – the coronavirus outbreak notwithstanding, China has far greater pulling and purchasing power for mobile researchers than it once did.

Sitting beneath all these numbers are individuals, and in our cover story this week, we hear from a selection of globetrotters, who tell their personal tales of life on the road.

“Like Tallahassee, Woody Harrelson’s character in?Zombieland, I have wandered the post-apocalyptic university landscape with no expectations for tomorrow, delighting whenever I find a Twinkie,” writes the inimitable Tara Brabazon, dean of graduate research at Flinders University in Australia.

“I have witnessed everything that can happen in a university: every vision statement, strategic plan, key performance indicator and restructure…It is like playing a chess game where I already know the next 20 moves to checkmate.”

If there are challenges to overcome, there are also many compensations – whether financial, the stimulation of working in a new environment, or simply the opportunity to enjoy an adventure (or the weather).

But are there also returns to one’s academic output? Many of the contributors believe so, although all of them offer caveats to that assessment, and it’s abundantly clear from their travellers’ tales that moving is not easy, and that the effort to recalibrate personally and professionally can be immense.

On research output, the evidence cited in the Royal Society study suggests that “mobility is associated with better international networks, more research output, higher quality outputs, and better career outcomes”.

But it sensibly adds that it is not possible to say with any certainty how this relates to the benefits of mobility itself, versus the intrinsic characteristics of mobile scholars.

Most of our contributors also feel that coming in from elsewhere brings benefits to one’s adopted home as well.

As Brabazon puts it, “like cats, we can land on our feet, assess the scene and create movement”.

It’s an attractive analogy – but if you are about to take the leap, expect a few hairballs along the way.

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