20 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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The role of international faculty in the mobility era

In the era of globalisation, it is not surprising that growing numbers of academics are working outside of their home countries. Universities are themselves increasingly globalised – they are perhaps the most globalised of all prominent institutions in society. Even though the global percentage of international academics is small, this group is quite important.

We broadly define international faculty as academics who hold appointments in countries where they were not born and-or where they did not receive their first post-secondary degree. In most cases, they are not citizens of the country in which they hold their academic appointment. They are drivers of international consciousness at universities, they are often top researchers, and, in some countries, they constitute a large percentage of the academic labour force.

International faculty seem to cluster into five broad categories. A small but highly visible group of international faculty hold appointments at top research universities around the world, especially in the major English-speaking countries – Australia, Canada, the United States, and to some extent the United Kingdom. They are the global superstars, and some hold Nobel and other important prizes.

A second group is employed by mid-range or upper-tier universities in a small number of countries that, as a matter of policy due to their size, geographic location or specific perceived needs, appoint top-quality international faculty – such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland.

A third group teaches at universities in countries where there is a shortage of local staff – such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, some African countries and a few others. Here, international academics are frequently hired to teach lower level courses, often come from Egypt, South Asia or other regions, and frequently from non-prestigious universities.

The fourth category, which overlaps with the first three, consists of diaspora academics who immigrated from one country to another, often obtained citizenship in that country and are lured 'home'. In some ways, they may be considered ‘pure’ international faculty, while in other ways they are not.

A final group includes academics who have obtained their doctorates abroad, perhaps have had a postdoc abroad, and continue on to make their careers abroad as well – they might be labelled ‘transient academics’. Some international faculty can be found in virtually every country in the world.

Internationalisation and international faculty

Many countries and institutions see employing non-native academics as a key part of internationalisation strategies. Indeed, international faculty are often seen as the spearhead of internationalisation. Further, increased numbers of international faculty are seen as a key marker of internationalisation by the global rankings and often by ministries and other policy-makers within countries.

It is assumed that international faculty will bring new insights to research, teaching and perhaps to the ethos of university. But, of course, the effectiveness of the contributions of international faculty depends on the organisational arrangements of the university, the expectations on both sides for contributing to internationalisation and other factors.

Often, international faculty are not effectively integrated into the internationalisation programmes of many universities. They teach in their subject areas, but are asked to do little else for the university. And, in many cases, the lack of familiarity of international faculty with the norms and perhaps the politics of the local academic system and institution may limit their participation in governance and other university functions.

International faculty in non-English speaking environments are often key contributors to increasing the number of English-taught courses and degree programmes and are in general essential for boosting the English-language orientation of the university. The use of English for both teaching and research is seen by many as a key factor in internationalisation.

Policies relating to international faculty

Some countries and universities welcome international faculty and even implement initiatives to attract them. Others are much less welcoming. Universities in Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland have as a goal to hire about half of their faculty on the international market – and, not coincidently, do well in the rankings. Others, such as China and Russia, have provided extra funds and other incentives to hire internationally.

More than a few countries, including some that officially welcome international academics, place various obstacles in the way of hiring international faculty. Many have extremely complicated and bureaucratic procedures relating to obtaining work permits, procedures concerning security and other issues and visa regulations, which are sometimes combined with numerical quotas relating to specific job categories, sometimes including academic and research positions.

In some cases, bureaucratic and other procedural and legal barriers at the national level are a serious obstacle to appointing international academics and may restrict the number and also the kinds of appointments available.

There are also examples of national policies that are aimed against international academic appointments. India, until quite recently, had national regulations that prevented offering permanent academic appointments to non-citizens and even now only a handful of foreigners can be found in Indian universities.

Canada, from time to time, has imposed ‘Canada first’ hiring policies, under which universities have had to painstakingly prove that each individual international appointment was not taking the place of a comparably qualified Canadian. However, in general, Canada has been welcoming to international faculty – and it is relatively easy to obtain citizenship.

While the United States is quite open to hiring international academics, the bureaucratic hurdles of work permits and immigration are often problematical and sometimes insurmountable.

Saudi Arabia offers only term contracts to international academics.

Despite the fact that many countries have opened their borders to highly qualified professionals, including professors, in recognition of the realities of globalisation, the practical challenges of rules and regulations remain. The current wave of nationalism, and in some cases xenophobia, may in the coming period create further problems for international academic mobility.

Part of a community, or an isolated ghetto?

There are many important trade-offs for universities that consider attracting international faculty.

Should these faculty be hired to teach or to do research? Should their salaries differ from the remuneration received by their local colleagues? Should requirements for their promotion and contract extension be different than those of domestic academics? Should they be required to learn the national/local language or are they allowed to teach in English? Should they be offered the same contractual arrangements as local staff?

Among such important questions, there is one that is of primary importance for academic life: should international faculty be deeply integrated into the general university environment (bearing all related costs and enjoying all associated benefits), or should they be placed in a kind of ‘international ghetto’, with special conditions where competitive ‘international standards’ are maintained?

In some countries (such as Australia, Canada or the United States), this question does not arise. In many others, however – such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia – this question is of great importance and does not have an obvious answer.

Deep integration of international faculty into ‘ordinary’ university life should contribute toward improving the research and teaching culture, exposing the host institution and local academic community to new perspectives and generally increasing diversity.

At the same time, there may also be risks associated with this process, including the possibility of social tensions between international and local faculty and low levels of satisfaction among international scholars, due, for example, to non-transparent bureaucratic rules that dominate in many academic systems.

New perspectives

International faculty are an increasingly important part of the global academic environment of the 21st century. Part of both the symbolic and practical aspects of internationalisation, international academics constitute a diverse subset of the global academic labour force.

At the top, distinguished senior professors are recruited by highly ranked research universities worldwide. Elsewhere, many international faculty are a necessary part of the teaching staff in countries with shortages of local academics. The motivations for institutions – and countries – to recruit international academics vary, as do the reasons why individuals seek positions outside of their home countries.

One thing is clear: international faculty are a growing and increasingly important part of the global academic labour force, bringing diversity, new perspectives and skills wherever they go.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: altbach@bc.edu. Maria Yudkevich is associate professor of economics and vice-rector at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. Email: 2yudkevich@gmail.com. This article stems from research done for International Faculty in Higher Education: Comparative perspectives on recruitment, integration, and impact, edited by M Yudkevich, PG Altbach, and L Rumbley (Routledge 2017).
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