A version of this post was recently published by the Guardian HE network. It seems appropriate to post it now, given that I’m just back home from five weeks in Australia.
Some academics are now highly mobile. We are internationally focused. We are a lucky elite, members of the global knowledge workforce Robert Reich talked about a long time ago. We have opportunities not available to everyone.
I am one of those ‘international academics’. Mine is not a unique and singular story. I moved to the United Kingdom from Australia nearly twelve years ago. At the time I didn’t think too much about it. I was ready for a late-career academic adventure. I had a partner prepared to move, a grown up family and two young dogs who could be micro-chipped, packed up in vet-approved crates and flown away in air-conditioned comfort. A house was easily sold, possessions loaded into a tin container and moved from a dry South Australian desert on one side of the world to a Midlands drizzle on the other.
This kind of movement is not a new situation. A few academics have always moved around. My own undergraduate experience at Adelaide University was greatly enhanced by conversations with Professor George Rudé, one of the 20th century’s notable Marxist social historians. His disenchantment with the British academy increased my/my peers’ understanding of events in places far away. Some of our other lecturers had also studied abroad, as it was quaintly known then, and they brought a cosmopolitan consciousness to a liberal, but then still provincial, university. They were however a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Antipodean institution.
Of course, everyone in higher education is more focused on the international these days. Even if our research is highly localised, we are all very mindful of the need to foster international conversations, networks and partnerships and publications. We swap notes about which software allows us to video-conference without the picture freezing every few minutes, and how to best share files, images and co-authoring. We are very familiar with high-speed trains, long haul planes and the vicissitudes of lost luggage, skipped meals and cancelled flights. But in this brave new scholarly world, the ‘international academic’ now has a particular position and currency.
These days, ‘the international academic’ is easy to find. We are no longer a tiny minority. At my current institution, for example, close to one in every five academic staff comes from somewhere other than the United Kingdom. The University of Nottingham not only has a highly diverse student population, the same applies to its staff. And this is not an uncommon picture around the country.
Achieving this kind of staffing mix isn’t accidental. While each of us who comes from elsewhere has made our own individual decision about whether to pack up our goods and set off into the unknown, there is something else going on in our institutions. Universities have decided that they want to operate in both a global student and staff market. They deliberately place job advertisements in a range of overseas locations and on the web. Search committees and personal networks are encouraged to be active in spreading the word about vacancies and opportunities.
But why, we might ask, are universities so keen to have staff from elsewhere?
Our institutions believe that we ‘international academics’ bring two key attributes:
Firstly, within globalised higher education institutions, we ‘international academics’ embody and represent to the wider public the international nature of our institutions in particular, and of a globalized academy more generally. While we live the idea that it’s possible to be educated and scholarly no matter where you’re from, we are key signifiers within our institutions of their reach and activities.
Secondly, we ‘international academics’ often bring potential competitive advantages to our new employers. League tables of bids, citations and esteem are the currency of higher education quality and we ‘international academics’ can count and be counted in these areas. Our previously local knowledge and contacts are now very helpful to our new institutions; we can form partnerships with our previous colleagues. Our ‘over there’ networks convert to new international research partnerships and projects. And we may come from countries and/or institutions that are of strategic interest to institutions seeking international research clout. Cross-country co-authorship is now seen by many universities as particularly important in the citations game and many of us are urged to write with colleagues from home, particularly if they are in high prestige institutions. We may also bring esteem to our new institutions if we are invited ‘back home’ as international experts to keynote events and lead prestigious projects.
What is less acknowledged, it seems to me, are the institutional benefits that come from having a diverse staff. Consistent with my own experience of classes with George Rudé, a culturally and linguistically rich mix of academics can enhance the experience of students. International academics are able to share, with their class made up of students from around the world, the need to make connections between what happens here and what happens elsewhere. We often incorporate into our teaching our home-grown literatures, scholars, histories and ways of life. We can provide experiences and narratives that might otherwise be harder to access. However some international academics do face discrimination – ranging from indifference to outright rudeness and prejudicial judgments – if they are in locations where World Englishes and cultural diversity are not recognised and affirmed by university policies.
So if we are helpful to universities, how is it for the scholar who is mobile?
Well, all this here-ing and there-ing creates a somewhat ambiguous mandate for the ‘international academic’. One the one hand, we want to pursue research in our new location. The challenge of transferring our interests into new places is one of the things that was most attractive about the move in the first place. On the other hand, there is also considerable mileage in keeping close contact with our former connections, research agendas and policies, events and scholarship in the places we have come from.
This kind double thinking and double being is increasingly the lot of ‘the international academic’. We are neither simply expats nor migrated scholars, but must somehow metaphorically be astride two locations and contexts, always a little concerned about not falling too far to one side or the other. Some of us get tired of this and go home. Some of us stay and get acclimatised. As well as maintaining some kind of scholarly locational balance, we learn to moan about the weather and the traffic in two locations. But we also relish the privilege of ready access to places and practices we previously only knew in books. Home and away becomes a way of life.