UK is best place to be a researcher, conference told

British universities need to use one of the best weapons in their armoury to attract and retain international academic researchers in the era of Brexit and tighter visa restrictions, delegates to the Universities UK International Higher Education Forum were told this week.

“For nowhere in the world supports researchers as well as we do,” claimed Dr Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, an international programme funded through institutional membership to encourage world-class career and professional development for researchers.

“We hear a lot about how great the UK is for research, but rarely hear about how great we are at supporting our staff,” said Metcalfe, who urged UK universities to redouble their efforts to get the message across.

And with half of the United Kingdom’s post-doc researchers coming from the either the European Union or other countries in the world and 28% of academic staff being international, the importance of projecting a welcoming and positive environment is vital, she said.

Metcalfe, a member of the European Commission's Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Advisory Group and the Royal Society Diversity Committee, said the UK was “the best in Europe for open and transparent recruitment of researchers” as well as for career development, equal opportunities and diversity.

Metcalfe, who leads the implementation of the UK Concordat to support the career development of researchers and the UK process for the HR Excellence in Research Award, admitted that more needs to be done to spread the word about the UK’s supportive research environment.

“Universities need a communications strategy that promotes not just that the UK is a good place to do research, but that it is a good place to be a researcher,” she said.

Speaking to University World News, Metcalfe said a more coordinated approach was needed from universities, with those responsible for international recruitment not simply focusing on undergraduate and masters programmes.

“Few universities have an international strategy for postgraduate research and recruiting international research staff and academics.

“The people in the international offices don’t always know what is provided by staff development and professional development and in the graduate schools,” she said.

Urging a more joined-up approach, Metcalfe said: “The message should be across the entire supply chain that anyone who comes to our university is looked after well and then there can be specific messages for undergraduates and those aimed at PhDs and research staff and academics.”

Visa challenges

She accepted that Brexit and visa restrictions created challenges for attracting international talent to the UK, but stressed that there were positive messages to get out to counter some of that.

Metcalfe said that Vitae’s mission to create world-class researchers meant helping universities, both in the UK and abroad, to build up capacity to train, develop and support researchers. It is currently working with the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the African Academy of Sciences to provide professional development opportunities for research fellows in Africa.

In the UK, the University of Birmingham was held up at the London conference as a good example of a UK institution that is enhancing career opportunities for both early-year researchers and those on the brink of being considered for professorial chairs.

Professor Robin Mason, the University of Birmingham’s pro-vice-chancellor (international), told the International Higher Education Forum: “One third of our academic staff are from outside the UK and the university is committed to working with others to try to attract the best academics to join us from Europe and the rest of the world.”

He said one of the most successful ways of attracting both home and overseas talent was through the Birmingham Fellowships, now on their 6th cohort, and with 100 fellows.

The fellowships are designed for promising early-year career researchers and give those selected five years of protected research time with no teaching and no management or admin duties.

“At the end almost all are ready for promotion,” said Mason.

Birmingham also offers professorial research fellowships designed to fast track seasoned researchers “who may be slightly early to be getting full chairs”. These offer three years of protected research time and give staff appointed “a leg-up and boost” to gaining full chairs, said Mason.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.