English universities reach out to recruit global talent

In 2014-15, English universities employed approximately 40,000 academic staff from 140 different countries outside of the UK. These figures have increased in recent years as overall academic staff numbers have increased and universities have cast their nets wider to search for international talent. Non-UK nationals now make up 30 per cent of all academic staff.

In the past decade, roughly 40 per cent of new posts have been filled by UK nationals and 40 per cent by European Union (EU) nationals, with non-EU nationals taking the remaining 20 per cent. Understanding these migratory flows and their underlying causes is useful as it gives an indicator of the relative strength of the English higher education sector.

More international staff come from Germany than anywhere else, although all of the large EU countries are well represented in English universities. This likely reflects that academic careers in the UK are often perceived to have lower barriers to both entry and progression than other EU countries, because UK universities have relatively high levels of autonomy and are incentivised by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to hire the best talent available.

A noticeable change has been the big increase in staff coming from Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal. These Mediterranean countries are undergoing public sector austerity that has restricted staff recruitment into universities, made career progression tougher and reduced resources for research activity. All of which will have encouraged ambitious academics to migrate.

Of the non-EU international staff, the greatest numbers come from the USA, China, India, Australia and Canada.  This is unsurprising given that these variously have large populations, English as a first language, and well developed higher education systems.

Since 2008-09, there have been increases of about 30 per cent in the number of staff coming from all of these countries, except for Australia which has seen a 6 per cent decrease.

The increases in American and Canadian nationals choosing to work in England could be interpreted as a reassuring signal of the relative attractiveness of the English higher education sector in an internationally competitive environment. Although the decrease in Australians might likewise reflect an increasing strength in the higher education sector there.

Interestingly, there are big differences in the proportions of international staff across type of university, location and subject areas.

Non-UK staff are disproportionately found in high-tariff and specialist higher education institutions and were more likely to be submitted to the REF 2014. They are also more likely to be employed at London institutions.

Looking at the distribution across subjects, it is no surprise that the greatest proportions of international staff are in modern foreign languages. Aside from these, they are most likely to be found in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. This accords with the Higher Education Workforce Survey 2015, which found these subjects to be among the most difficult to recruit to. International staff are least likely to be in vocational subjects such as education and nursing.

A final consideration is how the increase in international staff might be related to the recruitment of UK nationals. It would be easy to speculate that the increase in international staff might be either squeezing out UK nationals or the result of declining domestic applications following a fall in real salaries in the sector.

The aggregate data offers little support for this though. The number of academic staff who are UK nationals has increased over the past two years in 25 of the 26 subject areas shown above (the exception being biological sciences, which has had a fall of about 0.5 per cent).

It therefore seems that in a period of large expansion of the academic workforce, English universities have increasingly needed to recruit globally to be able to meet their demand for high-quality academic staff.