Do more to lure and keep international academics – DEA

Universities should be more ambitious in their strategies to attract and retain international staff, including expanding the use of English at universities, according to a government-funded report by the think tank, DEA.

The report International Recruitment: Balancing continuity and dynamism in the faculty was presented at a conference in Aarhus on 22 November. It was funded by the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation under the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education.

The report, which focuses on the recruitment and retention of international academic staff at Danish universities, recommends expanding the use of English as a working language at universities. “When international researchers are setting foot on Danish soil, they are met by an expectation that as a part of their contract at Danish universities they shall have to learn the Danish language. This could be an unnecessary drag and a hindrance for their academic progress,” the report says.

It argues that although many internationally recruited academic staff benefit from learning Danish in the long run, many of these researchers are employed on short-term contracts and “it is of greatest importance that the researchers can contribute both to research and to teaching from their first day in Denmark”.

Jeppe Wohlert, senior consultant at DEA, said expanding the use of English as a working language would strengthen their chances of securing tenure in Denmark and hence is something Danish universities should be interested in doing. Otherwise, “we are at risk of losing the recruited talent to more attractive positions in other countries”.

Out of all positions at Danish universities in 2011-13 – whether full professors, associate professors or assistants – 38% or 1,863 persons were foreign citizens recruited in that period. The corresponding figure for 2007-09 was 33% and for the period 2004-06 it was 24%.

The highest proportion of international recruits was to the assistant category (46%), while for associate professors it was 34% and for full professors 22%. Some 186 full professors of foreign nationalities were recruited internationally in 2011-13: of which 50 (23%) were in the social sciences, 44 in the natural sciences, 38 in health sciences, 33 in technical sciences and 13 in the humanities. The majority (52%) of the appointed researchers came from another academic position in Denmark.

The aim of the report was to discuss how university management can improve and strengthen recruitment and retention of international researchers.

One applicant per post

Despite many good arguments for such international recruitment being listed, the report found that between 2011 and 2013 a total of 3,628 positions announced in the three categories had only one international applicant per post, demonstrating that universities tend to hire for these positions locally. The study is thus pointing out that there is a need for universities to be more active and ambitious about hiring internationally through open calls for faculty positions.

In order to stem the potential additional work that international calls for positions may generate, the report proposes a mechanism for sifting out unqualified applicants early by a standard reply in the initial response round so that only qualified applicants proceed to an in-depth assessment by hiring committees.

The study also claims that the working language in universities and at the ministry is predominantly Danish and that the announcement for positions and the contract for positions are in Danish and that the time is now ripe to work out a complementary procedure in English when hiring international staff.

The study is based also on 60 interviews with researchers, managers at departmental and faculty levels and administrative staff at Danish universities and abroad, undertaken between October 2015 and June 2016 at 10 universities, and the people interviewed are named in the report.

The study discusses better career management for foreign junior researchers, notably by further developing the Danish tenure track system, comparing the Danish model with the ‘retaining excellence’ tenure track system at the University of California, Berkeley. The report calls for a change from ‘welcome packages’ to a more dynamic integration of international researchers.

High research performance

In October the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, or DFiR, published a report from the project World-Class Knowledge entitled Why is Danish research performing so well?

Among the recommendations was an extended focus on the ‘hour-glass effect’ whereby researchers in the ‘middle layer of excellence’ are losing out in recruitment to scientific positions, as described by University World News.

Based on a number of analyses made in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, DFiR has identified eight elements that are essential for high research performance, looking for imbalances in the present system. These include the balance between basic and external funding, the use of excellence tools, PhD reforms, governance at universities, internationalisation and public-private collaboration.

One of the concluding recommendations is that universities should be encouraged to collaborate and agree on how to share research fields and educational programmes. “The process should be facilitated by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education, with inspiration from the Netherlands. There is a need for a coordinated national policy for the sector.”