Academics fight back with week of action as 'brain drain' doubles in three years

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The Independent Online

The brain drain of academics from universities has reached crisis levels, lecturers' leaders said yesterday.

The brain drain of academics from universities has reached crisis levels, lecturers' leaders said yesterday.

As many as 2,000 teaching and research staff are leaving universities every year for better-paid jobs abroad, twice as many as three years ago. Others are giving up their academic careers because they can earn more by retraining as gas fitters or plumbers, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) says.

It plans a week of industrial action, starting on Monday, to protest against academics pay levels. The strikes are expected to close universities across the country on Wednesday, when the action reaches its peak.

The protest is the first time that lecturers have joined with the National Union of Students to bring universities to a standstill, the AUT protesting about pay and the students about the introduction of variable top-up fees.

Vice-chancellors have acknowledged that there is a serious problem. They said that the AUT figures demonstrated the scale of the academic recruitment crisis caused by years of underfunding.

The AUT is protesting against pay levels which mean senior lecturers can earn as little as £38,000 after 15 years in the job. The AUT says that a new pay framework would see some university lecturers losing £18,000 over the next 13 years. Academics in the United States earn at least a third more than their British counterparts, the union's study says.

Professors earn nearly 50 per cent more in the US than in the UK, while rank-and-file lecturers, who earn just under £23,000 in the UK, are paid 42 per cent more in the US.

An AUT spokesman said that the exodus of academics was set to worsen. "Last month the Prime Minister quoted figures which showed that 1,000 UK academics left jobs in this country two years ago - a quarter of them to the US," he said. "Our research suggests that figure has now doubled and could rise even higher."

Universities UK says that the introduction of top-up fees in 2006 is not likely to solve the problem. Vice-chancellors are lobbying for an extra £8.8bn for universities from the Government over the next three years, including £600m to be used to boost academics' salaries.

In its recent submission to the Government's spending review, the organisation cited research showing a steady increase over five years up to 2001-2 in UK academic staff leaving for jobs abroad.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK said that it would become increasingly difficult for British universities to stop academics being poached by overseas institutions unless extra funding was found to improve their pay.

"The UK's future international reputation in university teaching and research depends on the successful recruitment, retention, motivation and contribution of high-calibre staff," she said.

"We have highlighted the need for significant additional funding for the modernisation of pay structures, helping to tackle a number of problems relating to pay and human resources.

"Unless action is taken soon to remedy this problem the creation and maintenance of a sustainable staff base, needed both to train professionals in the future and to continue widening access to universities, is likely to prove extremely difficult."

Career change

Academic quits to train as gas fitter Researcher turns gas-fitter to earn

DR KARL Gensberg, a post-doctoral researcher in molecular biology at Birmingham University, is leaving academia to retrain as a gas fitter because of the "abysmally low" academic salaries.

The 41-year-old is quitting after 10 years because he is "completely fed up" with earning just £23,000 a year. He has been training as a gas fitter since October and will leave his academic job in April.

"I earn £100 a day doing my academic job, which involves research into arthritis. But I can charge £65 for servicing a gas fire which would take me less than an hour. If I do two of those a day I'm already earning more than I do now after six years of study and 10 years in the job."

After studying for a degree in biology at Aston University, Dr Gensberg did a PhD, also at Aston, before joining Birmingham University 10 years ago.

"To leave does seem such a terrible waste of all my education and training. I could have trained as a gas fitter at 16 and saved myself a lot of time and trouble.

"I have a six-year-old son and I would never want him to go into science or academia - I want him to get a proper job where what he does will be appreciated," he said.