Foreign researchers pessimistic about career – Survey

A pilot survey of more than 1,000 foreign researchers at Aarhus University has found that most foreign scientists are not optimistic about being able to forge a career in Denmark. The survey is expected to be rolled out as a study of recruitment of international researchers carried out at all Danish universities after the summer.

Only one third of the international researchers surveyed at Aarhus think that they have as good an opportunity as Danish researchers for advancement at Danish universities and only 36% think that they have the same opportunity for getting external funding.

In the open answer section in the questionnaire, many of the respondents expressed discontent with the outlook for further academic advancement in Denmark, which seems to be related to the general negative political focus on foreigners in Denmark.

This is a significantly larger proportion of the respondents expressing such a view compared to a Deloitte Business Consulting investigation in 2011 on behalf of the Ministry of Education, in which 60% of the respondents reported the possibilities for further recruitment to Danish scientific positions as either very good or good and only 8% as bad or very bad.

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, said his organisation has decided to conduct an investigation similar to the Aarhus University investigation at a range of other Danish universities as a part of a larger project called ‘Careers in Science’.

He told University World News: “We wish to see if the Aarhus trends hold for the whole Danish university sector. In particular, we are interested in seeing if it is a general trend that international scientists do not feel as welcome and well treated in Denmark as we have seen before.

“If that is the case, it is a worrying trend given that Denmark needs to be attractive for the very best scientists in order to maintain its leading role in international science.”

Aarhus University is the second-largest university in Denmark with 40,000 students, 2,500 PhD students and post-docs and 8,000 full-time staff members, with 2,000 being senior researchers, and an annual budget of €840 million (US$992 million).

The Aarhus survey, published in Norwegian in Forskningspolitikk, has mapped out preliminary findings on 1,151 researchers with non-Danish citizenship, indicating who they are, why they went to Aarhus University and what they think about opportunities for working further at Aarhus University.

Some 59% of them are men, corresponding to the gender proportion for Danish citizens at Danish universities.

The researchers came from 58 countries. Regarding the countries they had either studied at or worked at just before coming to Denmark, the highest proportion came from Germany (16%), the United States (10%) or the United Kingdom (8%); while 65% of those recruited came from employment or studies in the 28 countries of the European Union.

Mostly recruited from EU and US

When it comes to recruitment to the positions of assistant professor, associate professor or full professor, the EU-28 and the US account for 86% of the recruited international researchers.

The majority of those recruited (71%) are at the levels of research assistants, PhD students (who are salaried in Denmark) or post-doc positions compared to only 3% of professor and 12.5% of associate professor positions.

The humanities have the highest proportion of recruitments at the level of professor or associate professor (26%). Many respondents said that they were working in biology (22%), in health sciences (14%) or economics (12%).

Half of the post-docs or PhDs recruited did not have any previous connection to Aarhus University, compared to 43% of assistant professors, 39% of associate professors and 22% of the professors surveyed.

Three-quarters of the internationally recruited professors had visited Aarhus at a conference, in meetings or had a research stay there prior to being recruited, while this was the case for 37% of all recruited researchers.

When asked the reasons for coming to Aarhus, the majority said that this was due to the advancement academically or high quality of research at the host institution. A significant number, however, reported that the reason for coming was better salaries and working conditions or private or family reasons.

Johnny Laursen, dean of the faculty of arts at Aarhus University, said one of the factors behind foreign researchers’ pessimism may be the fact that a high proportion of them are employed in humanities faculties, which have been hit by a 25-30% reduction in enrolment.

He said Aarhus University in all disciplines is recruiting extensively beyond its own young researchers, with very high rates currently of international recruitment in engineering and IT.

“Perception among younger researchers is pessimistic, but more so than [if it were] based on reality. Applications for jobs especially in the humanities have seen a surge of applicants from the UK recently, while some applicants from the US mention free schooling and free higher education as a pull factor.”

Commenting on the survey findings, Robert Phillipson, professor emeritus of Copenhagen Business School, said that even very few qualified Danes get a professorship because there are so few professorships.

He said: “The fact that Denmark has become increasingly xenophobic over the last thirty years is a harsh reality that permeates everything in Denmark, but this cannot be a specific factor in higher education.

“Discrimination is more subtle and coloured locally. It is a fact that any Dane who has a higher-level doctorate is likely to have a professorship earmarked for him or her, whereas this is not the case for non-Danes.”

Phillipson said that internal research at Copenhagen Business School 10 years ago suggested that Denmark was not a welcoming place for foreign academics. He said a committee was set up to investigate the problem and he remembers attending one meeting with six to eight foreigners, all of whom felt that they were excluded from whatever inner circles there were at a department.

He said the shift into English-taught courses since then may have exacerbated the divide between Danish speaking staff and others, who may no longer feel the same need to learn Danish as in years gone by.

Hartmut Haberland, professor emeritus of German language and the sociolinguistics of globalisation at Roskilde University, said the problem was not the current wave of xenophobia but that Denmark has chosen a “totally hare-brained but apparently successful strategy of branding itself (or at least its universities) as bilingual in Danish and English”.

He said this gives the impression that you can teach, do research and generally function at a university without knowing Danish. “This is of course not the case. But many transnationally mobile academics do not realise this in time, since it works for shorter stays, but not in the long run.

“I have written that the languages of publications, of research, teaching and administration do not coincide. Even in research in the natural sciences, Danish plays a much bigger role than many assume,” says Haberland.

Thomas Trøst Hansen is industrial PhD fellow at the Humanomics Research Centre at Aalborg University, Denmark, and Jan Petter Myklebust is Nordic correspondent for University World News.