In this post Cornelia Lawson, Ammon Salter, Alan Hughes, and Michael Kitson explore how international academics working in the UK higher education system contribute to impacts made inside and outside of the UK. Drawing on a survey of 18,000 academics, they note that whilst international academics contribute more to impacts outside of the UK than their UK counterparts, they are also significantly more likely to engage inside the UK than outside. Based on these findings, they outline potential policy challenges that the UK higher education sector may face as a result of Brexit.

The university sector in the UK is deeply integrated into the global higher education system in terms of both staff and students and international research collaboration. It is one of the most globally oriented components of the UK national economic system, responsible for £10.8 billion in export earnings in 2014-15.  

Over 35% of academic staff in the UK HE sector are foreign nationals and academics born overseas accounted for over 60% of the growth in staff numbers in the decade after 2007. Research funding from overseas in this period was also the only source of support to increase in real terms as domestic sources marked time, or fell in real terms, in the pursuit of the austerity agenda. Over half of all UK published papers are based on international collaborations. Success in funding reflects the research excellence of UK based academics, who account for around 4% of world researchers, but 16% of the worlds most highly cited papers. This is reflected in their ability to secure overseas funding. Around 6.9 million Euros of EU competitive research funding was won by UK academics over the period 2007-13, second only to Germany and accounting for over 12% of the total EU Framework 7 budget. 

However, as HM Treasury might say, research funding is an input and publishing excellence butters no parsnips, so does this high international profile translate into stronger domestic impact and engagement? Or does it generate national disengagement?  This is a critical question, since the UK system is under acute and increasing pressure from public funding bodies to demonstrate the socio-economic impact of its research on domestic UK well-being. 

The potential tension between global research perspectives and the imperative to demonstrate impact has been thrown into sharp relief in the course of the Brexit debate, which has highlighted anti-migrant and anti-free movement sentiment. In the university sector this debate has led to particular concerns about Brexit-related changes to immigration and right to stay rules; and about access to EU university funding sources both for research and staff and student mobility.  In particular, the ‘hostile environment’ of the Home Office has started to infect the conduct of some academic projects, placing new reporting and residency requirements on foreign academics. Moreover, the ‘foul air’ of the migration debate stirred up in the Brexit process, may deter international academics from coming to the UK and settling here, or even spur them to leave. 

In policy terms some straightforward questions arise. Does high and increasing internationalization mean an increasingly distanced view of domestic UK outcomes, as academics become ‘citizens of nowhere’? Or does it mean that the international nature of the UK university sector equips it to play a major role as a beacon of openness, attracting  international talent to raise UK welfare in a brave new post-Brexit world?  From this latter perspective both foreign and UK born academics in the UK university sector would act as ‘citizens of somewhere’, that somewhere being the UK. 

To throw some light on these questions, we have used a unique survey based dataset relating to a representative sample of 18177 UK academics’ research subjects. The sample covers all UK universities and all subjects. We measure impact pathway engagement by these academics involving public, private and third sector organisations along 27 dimensions. These range from commercialisation activities through collaborative projects and advisory roles all the way through to community based school and cultural activities. Crucially, our dataset enables us to distinguish between the frequency of such engagement activities by foreign born and by UK born academics. The dataset also enables us to map the geography of these impact pathways, by analysing differences between UK and foreign born academics in terms of the local, regional, intra-UK and extra-UK locations of external organisations involved in the research. 

“In terms of internal versus external engagement foreign born academics are citizens of somewhere. That somewhere is the UK, the location of their professional role and the majority of their engagement activities.”

Our analysis shows that foreign-born UK based academics do engage less frequently in the UK, and more frequently internationally compared to UK-born UK based academics. These differences are robust to comparisons between individuals working at the same university, rank and discipline. 

It is essential to note, however, that these differences are modest. Moreover, both groups engage more frequently inside the UK than outside it. In terms of internal versus external engagement foreign born academics are citizens of somewhere. That somewhere is the UK, the location of their professional role and the majority of their engagement activities. 

Our analysis also shows that personal experience and characteristics can shape the differences between foreign and UK-born academics.  In particular, we demonstrate that differences between the groups fade out as the foreign-born academics spend greater time in the UK.  This suggests that with increased experience in the UK, foreign-born academics move even closer in terms of UK national engagement to their native-born colleagues. Equally, UK-born academics with foreign work experience are more likely than other UK-born colleagues to be active in international engagement.  Foreign-born (and foreign-trained) academics in the UK provide a ‘two-for-one’ benefit in terms of engagement, enriching the UK’s global reach as well as deepening domestic ties  between society and academe.

The  ‘nativist’ argument that the globalized staffing of the UK system privileges international, rather than domestic engagement and needs recalibrating, is not supported by the evidence. Both UK born and foreign born UK-based academics, are far more engaged within the UK than outside. 

A more interesting argument is instead to ask how to reinforce those aspects of the system that enhance domestic engagement by foreign born academics. Our key finding here is that length of stay diminishes the effect of ‘foreigness’. Incentives and immigration regulations that enhance and support long term migration, and deeper exposure to domestic pathways and networks may enhance domestic involvement. 

There may, moreover, be more formidable potential challenges to engagement in the UK in the event of a no-deal or hard Brexit. The first is an exodus of UK-based academics to EU locations, as their institutions seek strategic partnerships to locate posts in mainland campuses in pursuit of EU funding. The second is an exodus of domestic private sector organisations to engage with, as they relocate their centre of gravity away from the UK. Ultimately, UK domestic engagement requires both demand and supply. 


This blog post is based on the authors’ article Citizens of Somewhere: Examining the geography of foreign and native born academics’ engagement with external actors’, recently published in Research Policy.

Image Credit: GregPlom via Pixabay (Licensed under CC0 licence)

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

Cornelia Lawson is a Lecturer at the School of Management, University of Bath.



Ammon Salter is a Professor of Innovation at the School of Management, University of Bath.


Alan Hughes is a Professor of Innovation at Imperial College Business School; Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lancaster University Management School, and Margaret Thatcher Professor Emeritus at Cambridge Judge Business School.


Michael Kitson is University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics at Cambridge Judge Business School; Assistant Director of the Centre for Business Research, Cambridge; and Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

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