Why Are Universities So International?

Worldwide, only about one in thirty people live in a different country from where they were born. Wander onto a university campus, though, and you may get a different impression. The bigger the university and the stronger its research, the more international its employees become. You’ll see international PhD students, international professors, and especially international temporary researchers like postdocs.

I’ve met quite a few people who are surprised by this. I hear the same question again and again, from curious Danes at outreach events to a tired border guard in the pre-clearance area of the Toronto airport: why are you, an American, working here?

It’s not, on the face of it, an unreasonable question. Moving internationally is hard and expensive. You may have to take your possessions across the ocean, learn new languages and customs, and navigate an unfamiliar bureaucracy. You begin as a temporary resident, not a citizen, with all the risks and uncertainty that involves. Given a choice, most people choose to stay close to home. Countries sometimes back up this choice with additional incentives. There are laws in many places that demand that, given a choice, companies hire a local instead of a foreigner. In some places these laws apply to universities as well. With all that weight, why do so many researchers move abroad?

Two different forces stir the pot, making universities international: specialization, and diversification.

Researchers may find it easier to live close to people who grew up with us, but we work better near people who share our research interests. Science, and scholarship more generally, are often collaborative: we need to discuss with and learn from others to make progress. That’s still very hard to do remotely: it requires serendipity, chance encounters in the corridor and chats at the lunch table. As researchers in general have become more specialized, we’ve gotten to the point where not just any university will do: the people who do our kind of work are few enough that we often have to go to other countries to find them.

Specialization alone would tend to lead to extreme clustering, with researchers in each area gathering in only a few places. Universities push back against this, though. A university wants to maximize the chance that one of their researchers makes a major breakthrough, so they don’t want to hire someone whose work will just be a copy of someone they already have. They want to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, to try to get people in different areas to talk to each other. Finally, they want to offer a wide range of possible courses, to give the students (many of whom are still local), a chance to succeed at many different things. As a result, universities try to diversify their faculty, to hire people from areas that, while not too far for meaningful collaboration, are distinct from what their current employees are doing.

The result is a constant international churn. We search for jobs in a particular sweet spot: with people close enough to spur good discussion, but far enough to not overspecialize. That search takes us all over the world, and all but guarantees we won’t find a job where we were trained, let alone where we were born. It makes universities quite international places, with a core of local people augmented by opportune choices from around the world. It makes us, and the way we lead our lives, quite unusual on a global scale. But it keeps the science fresh, and the ideas moving.

1 thought on “Why Are Universities So International?

  1. telescoper

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:

    This is an interesting post about internationalization in universities. The Faculty in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth provides a good illustration. It includes seven people, only two of whom were born in Ireland. The others were born in the Netherlands, Norway, Czech Republic, USA and UK. The blog post says there are two reasons why universities are so international: specialization and diversification. Both of these do apply, but there is a third reason, which concerns personal life, love, the pursuit of happiness, politics, and so on. The personal dimension shouldn’t be ignored, though it is much more complex than the others. Academics are people after all.



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