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Brain drain/gain: Asians at UK universities

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on July 22, 2021
Alamy Stock photo

Bright students from the Indian subcontinent historically went to Britain to study, gain knowledge and return to raise academic standards at home.


Mohammad Yasin, a well-regarded Jaipur-based structural engineer, felt a sense of stagnation in his career in 1999, when he was in his late 30s, aware that all the knowledge and skills he possessed could only take him that far. Keen to recharge batteries, he resigned from his comfortable job and enrolled on a PhD programme at a British university known for cutting-edge research in his field. “Those were some of the best years of my life — researching, reading extensively and discussing issues with experts in my field,” he says. He had several options back home, but a PhD was superfluous to his job profile. So, after gaining the doctoral degree, Yasin decided to test if it could be leveraged and casually applied for a lecturer’s job at another British university, even though he had never taught in a university setting. To his surprise, not only was he short-listed with four others who were already lecturers elsewhere, but he got the job, mainly due to his combination of industry experience and his PhD. He taught there for over a decade, playing what he calls the ‘academic game’, before returning to his previous role, rejuvenated.

Not everyone has the same trajectory as Yasin, but he is among thousands of experts from the Indian subcontinent who, over recent years, have been recruited by UK universities keen to internationalise their staff, curriculum and student profile, as the debate on skilled migration moved on from ‘brain drain’ (migration of experts from developing to developed countries in the 1960s and 1970s) to ‘brain gain’ (transferring skills, remittances by migrants back home), to ‘brain circulation’ (mobility of highly skilled migrants in a globalised world, benefiting host and home countries).

Some of the tens of thousands of students who arrive from the subcontinent every year stay on for higher studies and embark on academic careers in UK universities. For example, Nishan Canagarajah from Sri Lanka, who gained a BA and PhD from the University of Cambridge and joined the University of Bristol as a research assistant, climbed the academic ladder over the years and is today the vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester. Besides such students-turned-academics, UK universities also recruit experts directly from their countries of origin. In almost every subject field, university departments have staff from the Indian subcontinent, holding citizenship of their countries (most eventually acquire UK citizenship).

Their transition is eased by the fact that educations systems in the subcontinent were historically based on the British model. Besides, English is widely used back home, many growing up on Wren & Martin’s book on grammar and composition. Subcontinental experts teaching at UK universities provide another example of ‘brain circulation’ from former colonies to the former colonial centre, such as doctors recruited in the tens of thousands in the National Health Service (NHS) and Christian priests from north-east India and Kerala preaching in UK churches.

Check out the figures. Of the 223,455 academic staff at UK universities, 151,690 are British nationals. International staff has increased from 27 per cent in 2011 to 32 per cent in 2020. Those with Indian passports number the third highest among non-UK/EU staff — 3,180 — after China (5,505) and the United States (4,435). India tops the list among subcontinental countries: there are 755 academic staff holding Pakistan citizenship, Bangladesh 305 and Sri Lanka 260; those with UAE citizenship number 10 (the figures do not include British citizens of Indian, Pakistan or other subcontinental origin). There has been a progressive rise in the number of Indian experts at UK universities: from 2,019 in 2014-15; 2,345 in 2015-16; 2,440 in 2016-17; 2,620 in 2017-18; 2,845 in 2018-19; and 3,180 in 2019-20, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Several academic stars have been based at UK universities over the decades, such as Abdus Salam (Imperial College London), Amartya Sen (Cambridge), Sugata Mitra (Newcastle), IG Patel (London School of Economics), Bhikhu Parekh (Hull), Raj Chandavarkar (Cambridge). At Oxford, the list includes Tapan Raichaudhuri, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and CNR Rao. Currently, at Oxford alone there are over 160 academics from India working across all disciplines as lecturers, professors, and full-time researchers, including Nandini Gooptu, specialist in urban development, poverty and politics, and linguistics expert Aditi Lahiri. Dipak Nandy, who arrived from Kolkata, studied at Leeds University and taught English literature at the University of Leicester, is the father of senior Labour leader Lisa Nandy. Manali Desai became the first non-white woman to head a Cambridge department when she was appointed head of the Department of Sociology in 2020, while leading experts explaining the Covid-19 pandemic on British news media include Deepti Gurdasani (Queen Mary University of London) and Devi Sridhar (Edinburgh University).

Ethnic capital advantages

Says Ahmad Salam, the London-based son of Nobel laureate physicist Abdus Salam: “My father was extremely appreciative of the British and their academic institutions. He would always tell me how good and tolerant the British were and their respect for foreigners was an excellent quality. He was immensely proud of his association with St John’s College (Cambridge) and would tell me how you could always discern the class and quality of an Oxbridge man. He reserved his most appreciation for Imperial College. He was so grateful that the Governors saw that it was better to have a small amount of his time, rather than not have him there at all. Hence, they gave him leave to work on the International Centre for Theoretical Physics project and run it whilst also remaining a lecturer and head of department. He was always very proud of his time at Imperial and had great affection, which was of course mutual.”

The ‘mutual’ appreciation is reflected in recent research that Indian and other south Asian experts are singled out over other candidates because they are driven, bring ‘ethnic, social and domestic capital’ and international networks that establish, complement and further research and student recruitment. Having international staff also helps universities provide support to high fee-paying international students, many of whom leave their countries for the first time and find the self-reflexive learning system to be a challenge.

Says Dulini Fernando of the University of Warwick, who explored the career advantages of staff from the Indian subcontinent in the UK: “The Indian academics in our study used their valuable social connections to India and important cultural knowledge to obtain highly-prized symbolic capital in the form of research partnerships with leading academics in the West, thus challenging the assertion that migrants’ networks and resources do not facilitate upward career mobility. Single-mindedness and competitiveness, influenced by early experiences of getting through challenging circumstances, enabled respondents to focus exclusively on publishing and research income, especially as ‘status’ associated with senior positions is very important in their home countries, which motivated these academics to maintain a central focus on their work. These findings show ‘ethnic capital’ advantages such as cultural knowledge and networks can be used to move up the career ladder. Also, they were comfortable with the new ‘rules’ which require academics to prioritise research over everything else.”

Her study concludes that far from being hindered by being a skilled migrant, overseas academics actually find themselves ahead of the pack in many cases, and adds that south Asian academics display high levels of agency and entrepreneurial air. Strong links to home countries are seen as an advantage, because they provide a distinct research area and a large UK-based diaspora with which to collaborate. The study mentions some reasons for the presence of a high number of south Asian academic staff: limited job opportunities for academics in India, the inability of leading Indian research institutions to attract talented individuals, and the long-standing perception that the monetary rewards on offer to research scientists in India pale signicantly in comparison with global standards.

The long-term benefits

The study also suggests that in contrast to some groups whose tenure in the UK is generally short-lived, attracting staff from the sub-continent is considered a long-term solution for positions in UK higher education. “Arguably, due to legacies of colonialism, South Asians are statistically less likely to leave the UK after a couple of years of service in comparison to their counterparts from the EU or other EEA countries”, the study notes. Besides, it adds that they are seen as achievement oriented, aiming to reach the highest possible positions in their careers, and Indian families strongly encourage both male and female adult children to achieve status through careers. They also demonstrate high resilience to tolerate career challenges.

The career path of Savyasaachi Jain, who teaches at Cardiff University, is symbolic. He says: “I’m not a native academic, but I must say that my journey as a teacher in British universities has been remarkably smooth. I came to do my PhD at the University of Westminster when I was in my late 40s, and that too in a subject that I had never studied. I graduated as an engineer from IIT Kanpur, but was accepted as a doctoral candidate in media studies on the basis of more than two decades’ experience in newspapers, television programming and documentary filmmaking. The PhD, as one might expect, was tough going, but exactly halfway through it, I applied for and got a job as a lecturer in Swansea University and fell in love with teaching. I moved up in rank about one year into my job there, and later moved to the prestigious School of Journalism, Media and Culture in Cardiff University, where my constant attempt is to bring theory to the practice of journalism, and practice-oriented perspectives to media theory. Coming from a culture with strong established patterns of hierarchy, I find it refreshing when students address me by my first name rather than as ‘Sir’ or ‘Dr Jain’. Interestingly, the only group of students who consistently find it difficult to move beyond the ‘Sir’ are Indian students.”

Jain’s level of job satisfaction is shared by many from the subcontinent, but creeping corporatisation of the university sector and the culture of ‘publish or perish’ has caused some anxiety. Public funds are distributed to over 100 UK universities based on research rankings and teaching scores on National Student Survey. Academics face pressure to publish in high quality research journals and attract highly competitive funds through research bids, bear increasing teaching load and take on more admin roles. Some universities face major financial challenges, while low-recruiting departments such as History and Arts face the axe, while others (Philosophy, for example) have already been closed in some universities. Fernando’s study notes that in the changing UK higher education sector, it might be the case that teaching, rather than research, is privileged in the future as students continue to demand better services because they pay high fees. If this is the case, university’s rankings will increasingly come to rely on teaching quality, rather than research, which for many is the most cherished aspect of an academic career.

The march of corporatisation is evident in Europe and elsewhere. Tabish Khair, prominent writer and poet who teaches in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark, has mixed views about his career: “Academia has changed for the worse in the almost 25 years that have passed since I joined Copenhagen University as a PhD student. My PhD years were great, but after that I would say every year has been a bit more disappointing. The corporatisation of universities has essentially turned them into polytechnics, with very precarious job conditions for many, and it has brought to power a group of academic-digital bureaucrats who have further compounded the tendency towards nepotism that exists in all complex institutions. In terms of differences in the ways of teaching and researching in India and the West, I did not encounter any major structural problems, though Scandinavian countries are more focused on consensual, group learning than the Anglophone/Germanic/French pattern of authoritative lectures from above.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar)





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