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Where are the "native" Brits?

Hasan Suroor

The answer to the increasing flight of home-grown talent from British universities lies in better funding of higher education.

THERE IS a standing joke in Britain's immigrant circles that "native" Britons are in danger of becoming an "invisible" majority as they retreat from more and more areas of daily life.

First, it was the so-called "menial" jobs — cleaning public toilets, clearing the garbage, and mopping floors at Heathrow — that they did not want to do themselves and brought in cheap labour from the Third World, mostly the Indian subcontinent and Africa, to help. Next, they started opting out of even socially well-regarded but low-paid professions such as nursing and other public services. And, then, came the hospitality sector where all they ever wanted to be were celebrity chefs. Or get out, fast.

Now, it is universities that are witnessing a flight of home-grown talent with bright young white Britons abandoning them in droves to seek careers outside academia. A new survey, published last week, says that universities across Britain are becoming "increasingly dependent" on overseas academics and that the number of jobs going to applicants from outside the country has registered a significant rise in the past two years.

The most disturbing finding is that the trend has affected some of the country's most prestigious institutions such as Oxford University, and the Universities of Bristol and St. Andrews, and Imperial College, London. These are world-class centres of postgraduate studies — regarded as Britain's equivalent of America's "Ivy League" — and there was a time when they were spoilt for choice in making academic appointments.

The survey, conducted by The Times Higher, one of Britain's most authoritative journals of higher education, has re-ignited concerns as much about academic "brain drain" as about the quality of researchers who are coming out of British universities. For, one of the reasons for such heavy recruitment from abroad is said to be a shortage of domestic scholars of matching calibre.

"The results have renewed concern that universities are turning to better qualified overseas researchers who, unlike their British counterparts, are willing to work for low salaries," the journal noted. And in an editorial, "The Future Must be Home Grown," it said the findings suggested that young British postgraduates could be "failing to hold their own in a global employment market."

The survey, which covered 16 universities, confirmed the worst fears of those who had been warning about an "internal brain drain." It revealed that on average 35 per cent of the appointments made in these universities in the past two years went to overseas applicants — up from 29 per cent in 2003-2004.

What surprised even the most pessimistic observers was the finding that at Oxford University, 48 per cent of academic posts in the past two years were awarded to overseas candidates. At Imperial College, London, it was slightly less embarrassing at 46 per cent.

An official of the Association of University Teachers, the biggest body of university teachers, attributed the growing lack of interest in academic jobs to low remuneration and uncertain career prospects. According to one professor, the scale at which universities were losing young researchers to other sectors called for a serious look at pay and working conditions in academia.

But the issue, really, is part of a larger crisis facing British higher education. On the one hand, universities are wrestling with an unprecedented financial crunch caused by the continuing Thatcher-inspired squeeze on state funding, and, on the other, there is growing pressure on them to take in more students as part of the Labour Government's campaign to get at least 50 per cent of school-leavers into university by 2010.

Salaries in the best of British universities compare poorly with those in the corporate sector and the civil service; or indeed even in the media, especially television. The result is that they find it difficult not only to attract the best talent at the point of entry, but also to prevent their top academics from being seduced by wealthier institutions abroad.

Even when universities are able to get the people they want, they struggle to retain them in the face of a global competition for top-notch academics. Cash-rich teaching and research institutions in America, Canada, and Australia are waiting to snap up the best, whatever the cost. The biggest brain drain from Britain is to America where salaries, work environment and career prospects even in non-Ivy League universities are much better.

As a spokesman of the university lecturers' union said: "The recent increase in this flow from abroad may be due to the worsening conditions and career prospects of U.K. academics compared with other professionals which has made an academic career less attractive."

But is it really all about salary and promotion or is the problem more fundamental — namely that potential British academics are "simply losing out to better qualified competitors from overseas"? as The Times Higher pointed out.

Either way, the answer lies in better funding of higher education because what universities need in order to be able to both attract and retain talent is more money. To raise resources, British universities are already increasingly turning to foreign students who, unlike their domestic counterparts, pay full fee; and if they are now going to import academic staff as well they might soon start looking like the check-out counters at Tesco, not to mention customer services at Heathrow — all run by cheap overseas labour.

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