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Research finds migrant academics thriving in the UK

  • Overseas academics have an advantage in research-heavy universities
  • Increasingly market-driven UK universities good for migrant academics
  • Contacts and extended family benefit highly skilled migrants
  • Challenging career path helps breed workaholic academics

Far from being hindered by being a skilled migrant, overseas academics actually find themselves ahead of the pack in many cases, according to new research from Warwick Business School.

Indian and South Asian academics studied by Dulini Fernando, of Warwick Business School, often found themselves singled out for jobs over other candidates as they utilised their ‘ethnic capital’ to further advance themselves.

Much of the pre-existing literature surrounding highly skilled migration argues migrants have significant shortfalls and limitations and as such are disadvantaged in their careers.

However, Dr Fernando disputes this, suggesting cultural, social and domestic capital actually puts them in a more positive position.

Dr Fernando said: “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.

“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 requires academics to prioritise research over everything else. If you are comfortable with the new rules, you are more likely to be able to play the game better than those who have not embraced the rules.”

Status is everything

In the paper, Exploring career advantages of highly skilled migrants: a study of Indian academics in the UK, Dr Fernando and Laurie Cohen, of Nottingham University Business School, argue that overseas staff are very well placed to craft a career in the increasingly market driven UK university system.

Interviews were conducted with 32 Indian academics working in science and engineering departments of a UK university, areas chosen as they recruit high numbers of international staff.

“By focusing on the experiences of a particular nationality we provide a more contextualised view of skilled migrants’ frameworks of thinking and action,” added Dr Fernando.

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.

One academic, Mala, stated: “I think I work on articles around the clock. I have no hobbies, no holidays – just writing. But in contrast to people in this country, I think Indian people in general work with conviction to achieve their goals. We grew up in a society where status is everything.”

Respondents from both science and engineering talked about how they prioritised publishing and generating research income over activities such as teaching and administration.

Most respondents saw high status publications as the critical prerequisite to career advancement and justified compromising on other activities in order to generate these.

Another academic, Shravin, said: “I came here to do research and to make a career for myself in a renowned university - so my main concern is doing my job well and according to our dean this involves getting good publications.”

Happy families

The Asian culture of an extended family also helped Indian academics, as they brought their mothers with their family to the UK, so they could take care of the children full-time, allowing them to concentrate on their research.

“Having my mother-in-law to look after the house and the kids is a blessing,” another academic Mekala added. “This means that I can focus on my research, join my colleagues for a drink, participate in graduations – do these little things as well.

“I think it is important to make time to socialise with your colleagues especially seniors – this might be your only chance to let them know about what you do and build rapport.”

However, Dr Fernando warned there may be change in the air for overseas academics previously focussed on research over teaching, with a shift in UK academia rules.

As one of the other academic participants Tulsi explained: “There is talk that teaching will be more and more important in the future. Universities do not want their image to go down on the National Student Survey given that so many things depend on it. So the future is not clear at the moment.”

Dulini Fernando teaches Management, Organisation and Society and Organisational Analysis on the Undergraduate programme, plus Organisational Behaviour on the full-time MBA and MSc Human Resource Management & Employment Relations. She also teaches Research Methodology on the suite of MSc Business courses.

For further details please contact Nicola Jones, Communications Manager, University of Warwick 07824 540863 or