Globalisation and the immobile academic

This week I am about to undertake a house move. Or to be precise, my family and I are undertaking a series of complex moves, leaving an apartment in Yorkshire, moving most of its contents to an apartment in Dublin, and in turn moving the contents of our house in Dublin to our new home in Aberdeen. The complexity of this move is in part a reflection of our academic history, having worked in Dublin, Hull and now Aberdeen. In that sense I am a product of the global academic network, in which a move between institutions and indeed between countries has often been a normal part of academic career development. In fact until recently most universities would expect up to 10 per cent of their academic workforce to leave or migrate to another institution in any given year.

But no longer. Over the past two or three years the number of academic jobs advertised as vacant has been a fraction of what it once was. As funding is cut almost everywhere, faculty are staying in place as long as they can retain their jobs, and those leaving due to retirement are often no longer being replaced. Just as the spread of communications technology has made intellectual globalisation more and more of a reality, the physical migration of lecturers is in decline. Whereas in the past many younger academics would expect to move within the first ten years of their careers, nowadays they are likely to stay put and hope that they can get a more secure contract.

Does this matter? I think it does, because the decline of academic migration is just one of several changes in the academy, including the decline of conferencing, and the decline (as I expect) of external examining. Despite easy access to the global community through the internet, I suspect that many institutions will become more parochial, not only because fewer people are moving, but also because those that are there are less self-confident. It is to be hoped that the era of staffing reductions will not go on much longer; the effects are not just organisational, but also intellectual.

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19 Comments on “Globalisation and the immobile academic”

  1. But it isn’t just organizational or intellectual, though. When I think about saying “our academic history … having worked in” I worry that this further conflates “my work history” with “our family history”. My kids are already tired of the logic that welds them into a small corporate “us” based on what I do, and I think kids of academics, like military kids, probably do have a certain amount in common in this regard.

    I was thinking about this as I drove around the small community where I live this morning, and realised how many familiar faces I see on the street every day: it’s the very definition of parochialism. I came to rest here when my children were born, and I’m still here because on balance this is a good place for them at this stage in their lives. I’ve talked to them about the possibility of migration and they’ve talked to me about how it might feel for them if we shifted.

    So like other women I suspect, I’d show up as a statistic on the immobility figures, but not entirely because of contraction in jobs.

  2. Gabriela Says:

    I’m currently undertaking a research based on skilled professionals that have lived and worked in 3+ countries while following a ‘career path’ or profession. So far I haven’t interviewed any academics, so perhaps this comment may awake some interest? – it would be interesting to compare academia with other professions. I argue that nowadays professionals are ‘choosing’ to adopt an international mobile lifestyle (e.g. @Music for Deckchairs?)

    Do academics ‘resent’ the decline of international opportunities, why?

    • anna notaro Says:

      Gabriela, yours sounds like a very interesting research and academics are certainly a relevant category of professionals to examine. I cannot speak for the whole category of course but what I can tell you is that international opportunities, as you put it, have been crucial for my personal and professional development, my experiences in England, The Netherlands and lately in Scotland have all left a significant mark (learning a new language, influencing my research interests, establishing significant personal relationships etc.) and contributed to the on-going process of personal/professional identity construction. These are complex cultural/anthropological phenomena to address in a short blog comment but migration seems to be in humanity’s genes, we always felt the need to move elsewhere, a need often prompted by environmental factors, plagues, earthquakes, etc. however I’d like to think that behind our willingness to phisically move our bodies to new places (a need that contemporary digital technologies metaphorically recreate) there is an innate intellectual curiosity, a deep held passion for discovery and understanding, don’t forget that in classical tales curiositas is the reason for the story to begin and we cannot exist without a story to tell..

    • I really do like your question, Gabriela. Possibly there are grounds to resent the fact that universities are still bad at recognising that international opportunity can be constrained by all sorts of factors. This has real, practical consequences. The basis of attraction and retention strategies, for example, is the idea that some academics are flight risks, and that this fact all on its own makes them attractive. This is like the kind of low self esteem miscalculation people make in relationships, and I think universities outside of major capital cities are particularly prone to making it.

  3. I work from home because, as an autistic person, I don’t get the point of the politics within academia (or other places of work). I enjoy mobility of my job when I want to travel~ however, with regard to the comment by Music, I do not have children so yeah that would be destabilizing for them.

    I agree that as academics we need to fall far from the tree at times to keep the creative critical juices flowing~ perhaps that is one of the reasons I enjoy my lifestyle; I have a base, am not locked in to an institution and can get mobile when I want to.

  4. Jilly Says:

    I wonder (this is purely speculative, of course) if changes to the gender balance of academia and wider social changes are affecting mobility. Single women are likely to be as mobile as men (single or otherwise), but other women perhaps aren’t – the traditional ‘academic wife’ who followed her husband around from job to job has few male equivalents.

    Equally, there are obviously fewer ‘academic wives’ now, as male academics’ partners are more likely to have careers of their own which they aren’t going to uproot for the benefit of their partners’ careers. The combined effect of this is a rise in 2-career households which are often quite difficult to move without severe consequences for one or other partner.

    • Jilly, this is very much the kind of issue that the original post brought to my mind. Conventional academic mobility seems to be some kind of shorthand for either young and unattached or well supported academics on the move. But there are other academics who are trying to hang on to their careers as second earners in places they wouldn’t necessarily choose to be (where they often fall down into the adjunct track), or as first earners who are reluctant to uproot their family for the promise of a better job somewhere else.

      So I think it’s good that there are now other forms of mobility, including virtual mobility, that allow the presently immobile and those who manage it all differently, like @psitutor, to experience some of the benefits of the kind of intellectual cosmopolitanism that perhaps an academic career used to suggest.

      Gabriela’s “mobile professionals”, though, really call to mind the phenomenon of the “freeway flyer” adjunct: more than one underpaid job in two different places. Some of these adjuncts are now also virtual flyers: living in one country, working online in another. It would be interesting to see how many domestic freeway flyers are also starting to maintain two homes, but both on quite a casual basis.

  5. Vincent Says:

    ‘The complexity of this move is in part a reflection of our academic history’. Rubbish, utter rubbish. Is it the usual for the average academic to have four, 4, FOUR homes on the go at the one time. 😀

    • Have you had four homes at any one time? – I argue mobile professionals develop a ‘portable lifestyle’ in order to recreate a home away from home. With four homes (houses/apartments), are you ‘at home’ anywhere?

    • Hey, hey, hey! Hang on a minute! I don’t have 4 on the go! I’m moving from two to two! I.e two homes on the go! Anyway, what I meant was that the locations of the homes reflect my mobile academic history.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Gabriela, I like your idea of ‘portable lifestyle’, i.e. to recreate a home away from home, however I think that *home* is where one finds himself/herself living at the time in other words it is in the ‘here and now spatial/temporal dimension that it acquires meaning, we do bring with us wherever we go our personal history of course, our sense of personal identity which is not fixed but a truly mobile, evolving concept..

  7. My research goes beyond professions as flexible means to achieve international experience; I am concentrating on managerial discourses that portray ‘nomadic lifestyles’ as a desirable life project in face of today’s globalization. It is a study from the employees’ perspective, seeking to understand why, in the first place, we become ‘expats’ but chose to end up as ‘serial expats’ (@Anna – going beyond migration).

    Talks about a ‘flat’ and a ‘borderless world’ seem a contradiction where real boundaries not only exist but define the limits of ‘our world’ (e.g. family, work permits, language barrier, etc. @Music)

    To uproot oneself, is it a prerequisite to succeed in today’s labour market, or it’s a consequence and we are struggling against it?

    By the way, with your comments I’m quite unsure of what to expect in the world of academia! – is there light there? –

    Anna: you are right, but I also argue that the internet supports the portable lifestyle: as J Urry puts it, taking one’s life while on the move: (mobile phone or laptop) our ‘life’ is at our fingertips no matter where we go.

    By the way, I have children and so far they seem to enjoy the moves, however, I must point out that cultural displacement in their lives is a fact even if we were not mobile.

  8. Academic jobs are abundant — go online — more at:

    I have had no problems finding teaching work…

  9. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    I don’t think you can separate the less mobile academic from the price of housing over the last few years. Moving home was an up to €0.5 million investment even three years ago.

  10. Niall Says:

    This is a very interesting post. Another example of the “decline of academic migration” is the reduction in the number of universities allowing year-long sabbatical leave. In part that is because (to touch on another common theme of this blog) universities and academics are very bad at explaining the benefit of sabbaticals.

    The resulting rise in “parochialism” is very damaging: too many will believe that the way to organize their institution’s activities is the way it has always been done.

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