UK: Fees and unemployment make mobility attractive

When, armed with a degree in genetics and a masters in law, Susan Robertson's daughter attempted to enter the UK graduate jobs market over the past few months, she drew a blank. She had already been toying with returning to her native Australia and that made up her mind.

Robertson (pictured), a professor of sociology at the University of Bristol and editor of the weblog GlobalHigherEd, says her daughter is unlikely to be the only UK graduate deciding to look for opportunities abroad - and more undergraduates could start doing the same.

While she says the decision by the UK government to increase fees to up to £9,000 will make little practical difference to student finances as they will not have to pay them back until they are earning £21,000, talk of the hike is likely to make many think twice about where they want to study.

Student mobility could also increase because of limits on undergraduate numbers. At least 180,000 aspiring students in the UK are likely to be disappointed this year because of a surge in applications, thanks to next year's fee increase. Some of them are expected to try their luck elsewhere, including universities in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where courses are cheaper and teaching is in English.

It is not only UK students who are becoming more mobile. QS World University Rankings reports that Irish students are also looking further afield, applying in significant numbers to universities in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, as well as the United States.

And graduates are also becoming more mobile when they look for employment. A recent survey carried out by Student Currency Exchange, which specialises in foreign currency exchange for international students, found that 65% of UK students and graduates it surveyed would consider moving abroad to find work, and 52% were actively considering it.

Competition is increasingly fierce for the best academic brains, with China working hard to attract more foreign graduates, as well as to ensure that its own nationals who go abroad to study return for work.

Phil Brown, author of The Global Auction, also tips Singapore as a place to watch: "It has good resources and if it decides to develop its research and become a global base for higher education and knowledge creation I expect very able senior academics to go there, despite the politics," he says.

Turkey's English language paper, The Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review, reported in February that the number of foreign instructors and professors working in Turkey had risen by nearly 60% over the past five years, thanks to a declining number of academic posts in the rest of Europe and America.

Brown says: "It is very uncertain, but what is absolutely clear is that there are going to be pretty fundamental shifts over the next decade and a lot of the action is going to be outside Europe and North America."

The United States nevertheless continues to be a powerful player, attracting Europeans and others because of its generous scholarships and salaries, although the financial climate has forced it to cut back on some of these.

Paul Cottrell, head of policy at the University and College Union, says that while many of America's most generous packages are confined to academic stars, these stars often bring with them other researchers and PhD students from their home countries.

His main concern, however, is not brain drain overseas but out of academia altogether. Fee hikes in the UK and elsewhere in Europe are unlikely to make much difference to the academic prospects of better-off students, he argues, but will affect decision-making by poorer students, who tend to be less mobile, and in particular deter many of them from an academic career - something which is also worrying the government.

Research by Louise Ackers, a professor of law at Liverpool University, has shown that the introduction of £1,000 fees in the UK did stop some students from poorer backgrounds becoming postgraduates.

But this time, she says, economic cutbacks are so widespread that for those who do continue to pursue an academic career there is not much choice about where outside the UK they can go. There is some evidence that a few of the large numbers of Germans studying in the UK are returning to Germany, where the economic climate is better, but compared to Portugal and Spain, UK job prospects look relatively healthy.

In any case, she argues, mobility is determined not only by economics but by relationships, with many unable to go abroad for work or study because of family and other ties.

Yet these ties also mean that when people do travel abroad to study they are more likely to stay there. Johanna Waters, a senior lecturer in urban resilience at the University of Birmingham and co-author of a new book Student Mobilities, Migration and the Internationalisation of Higher Education, says her research has found that many students form long-lasting relationships - personal and otherwise - with their overseas study locations.

That is why governments will be paying close attention over the next five years to where those overseas locations will be.