Leung, M.W.H.: Achieving diversity through mobility, 2013

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‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ no more

International movements of academics, scientists and researchers have become more common in the increasingly interconnected global knowledge economy. Regular exchanges and collaborations with colleagues overseas have become almost a necessary element of scholars’ work portfolio, especially among those in advanced economies, where scholars generally have more resources to be mobile. Not only scholars are keen to move around, a whole array of institutions in diverse fields – way beyond the academic fields – is engaged in this ‘mobility industry’. Ever more institutions worldwide are involved in stimulating the global circulation of academics, hoping that the geographical mobility of their affiliated scholars will have positive effects on their institution’s position in the global knowledge network and achievement in expertise production. As nation states, urban centres and academic institutions compete to host or at least share affiliation with as many among the ‘best and brightest’ as possible, the movement of these increasingly mobile scholars has become a contested field. The publication of policy-related papers and the organisation of workshops by national and international institutions (e.g. OECD Workshop on the International Mobility of Researchers held in 2007; Thorn and Holm-Nielsen 2006) reflects the rising importance of this subset of labour mobility.

The European Union (EU) has been ambitious in enhancing academic mobility. The promotion of international student and staff mobility has over the past decades become a major policy objective of the EU. The 25-year-old Erasmus programme is the hallmark of European mobility programmes. The outcome is impressive: close to three million students have participated since it started in 1987; over 300,000 higher education teachers and other staff have gained overseas work experience through which since 1997. The programme has an annual budget exceeding 450 million euro; more than 4,000 higher education institutions in 33 countries belong to the network, which is expanding (European Commission website: http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-programme/erasmus_en.htm). Mobility should be further enhanced, in the eyes of the policy-makers. In 2008, the EU laid the groundwork for a ‘new freedom’, the ‘fifth freedom’, namely ‘the movement of knowledge’, to add to the four freedoms of goods, services, capital and people. According to EU Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, ‘The knowledge society of tomorrow needs the freedom, the freedom of movement of knowledge.’ According to this paradigm, Europe needs more mobility of knowledge workers, including academics and scientists, in order to compete and prosper. Not only Europe is promoting mobility, similar momentum can also be observed across Asia and North America.

Move please, for the sake of diversity?

Official objectives of academic mobility programmes often include the following: to enhance the quality of teaching and research programmes, to strengthen the academic and cultural internationalisation, to promote personal development and employability among students and researchers, to foster respect for diversity, to encourage linguistic pluralism, and to increase cooperation and competition between higher education institutions (Robertson 2010: 642). How are these high-sounding objectives working out on the ground? In the following, I would like to focus on the issue of diversity and pluralism, asking specifically if existing mobility policies and programmes have contributed to a more diverse and pluralist academic space.

i. Be mobile, be international, and speak English, please!

Contrary to the idealised image mobility policies and programmes promote, increased international academic mobility among staff and students has not advanced linguistic diversity in the academia. Focusing on student mobility, Robertson (2010) maintains, ‘it is evident that greater academic mobility across Europe is reducing rather than increasing linguistic diversity; the result of the rapid growth of teaching in English to cope with the linguistic diversity in the classroom.’ The same also applies to staff mobility. English is not only used as a way to cope with linguistic diversity in a laboratory or a working group, but it has also become a standard upon which academics are assessed. Scholars who can function better in an English environment tend to be more mobile to gain overseas experiences, which can be seen as a form of capital for their career development (Leung 2012). They also receive more opportunities and financial support to go abroad. As the academic world becomes increasingly globalised, English has evolved to be the default international language in communication (including publishing, conference presentation and personal communication among colleagues) in many academic fields. While some argue that the use of a common language can connect disperse academic fields and bring about more international academic communication worldwide, many studies have confirmed that this growing dominance of English has put scholars from non-English speaking countries at a disadvantage to publish and share research findings internationally (e.g. Curry 2010). If more international exchange means more weight for the English language, which is accompanied with the Anglo-Saxon academic ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’, we must ask if academic mobility, as it is practised currently, leads to further conformity or diversity.

ii. Gender and disciplinary bias in academic mobility

Starting from the 1970s, studies have repeatedly documented the gender bias in academic mobility. Earlier studies examining the national patterns in the USA (e.g. Marwell et al. 1979) have concluded that geographical constraints experienced disproportionally among women have decisive influence on their professional advancements. These findings have been confirmed by more recent studies (e.g. Kulis and Sicotte 2002). In his piece on the internationalisation of the academic profession, Welch (2005) also underlines well-known facts that ‘international experience is valued within [academic] institutions’ but ‘the opportunity to travel and study abroad actively discriminates against women academics’ also using data from the USA (p. 79). Similar gender gap has also been repeatedly confirmed in Europe. Ackers (2000, 2004, 2010) has persistently drawn attention to the importance of gender in her work on academic mobility in the past decade. Her research has identified the barriers to training and mobility of female researchers and examined the extent of female participation in research and knowledge production in Europe.

My own research on Chinese scholars active in Chinese-German academics space also confirms the bias against female colleagues. While no aggregate data are available on the gender distribution of foreign academics in Germany, the statistics from the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) serve as good indicators. The Humboldt Research Fellowship Programme, run by the AvH has been the largest sponsorship scheme for visiting researchers (up to 40 years of age) at German universities and research institutions (up to 600 fellowships per year). Compared to other more specific and targeted sponsorship schemes, the Humboldt Research Fellowship Programme takes pride of its openness to applications from all countries and disciplines, without any regional and disciplinary quotas for the selection of research fellows. Among the total number of fellowships granted by Foundation worldwide from 1953 to 2011, only 16.5 per cent have been granted to female researchers (AvH, email communication in April 2012). Yet, among the Chinese fellowship recipients in 2011, 11.4 per cent were female. The average figure for the period 1953-2011 was 13.2 per cent. Jöns (2011) illustrates with her longitudinal data on former Humboldt research fellows that females in general experience significantly less transnational mobility in their careers as compared to their male counterparts, particularly in the natural sciences.

Gender bias in the academic (mobility) field goes, obviously, beyond the disproportional number of male and female being supported to participate in international exchange. Gender a social institution shapes the aspiration, motivation, expectation and experiences of academic mobility, and in turn defines the costs and benefits women and men (further differentiated by age, family status) have to pay/ can reap being mobile and engaged in international knowledge networks (Leung, in progress). Ackers (2000) shows that female mobile researchers in the EU predominantly move as ‘tied’ movers, typically following a male partner. Focusing on situations in which both partners in a couple are employed in scientific research, Ackers (2004) concludes that high levels of mobility expected in the scientific profession often leads to tensions in such partnerships and women tend to sacrifice their career in such circumstances, by either leaving the profession or forgoing chances of progress. Ackers and Gill (2008) examine the gender bias of life-course dynamics such as partnering and children on academic mobility and career development focusing on the experiences of researchers from Bulgaria and Poland who have worked in the UK and Germany respectively. Women were found to be tied to a specific spatial context because of private responsibilities and dual-career partnership. Moving beyond the spatial dimension of academic mobility, Ackers (2010) highlights the gendered dimension of temporalities of these trajectories, and calls for more attention to the contribution of short-stay mobility, which is more practised by female academics, to career advancement among academics. Leemann’s (2010) research on academic careers of PhD graduates in Switzerland reveals how gender, working in complex and interactive with partnership, children, dual-career constellations, social class and academic integration, produce inequalities in the transnational academic mobility that in turn affect individual’s accumulation of international cultural and social capital. Scheibelhofer (2008) examines the gendered mobility aspirations among Austrian scientists who have worked in the USA, highlighting parallels between the mobility experiences of women across vastly different socio-economic and legal background. In particular, she underlines the similarity between highly-skilled female scientists and their counterparts who work as care workers. The gendered nature of academic mobility has important implications beyond shaping the experiences and career prospects of the mobile individuals themselves. Research has shown that academic mobility can also induce considerable professional and personal development among the students and immediate colleagues of the mobile academics, as well as capacity development of the institutions these individuals are affiliated with (Ackers 2000, 2010, Leung 2011).

And gender is not the only factor defining who has more opportunities to go abroad. Age (generally related to professional rank) and disciplinary background are two of the dominant dividing lines that run through the academic mobility field worldwide. In some contexts, religion and ethnicity also play a crucial role. Gender imbalance in academic mobility is almost always related to subject-specific gender disparity. Women are generally under-represented in the natural sciences and engineering, which are the disciplines mostly promoted in the academia practically worldwide. Data from the AvH Foundation reflect the situation. Among the 966 fellowships and awards granted in 2010, 63.4 % were allocated to scholars from the Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences), 7.6% Ingenieurwissenschaften (Engineering) and just 29% for Geisteswissenschaften (Humanities, including Social Sciences) (Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2011, p. 75). Cantwell (2011) concludes from an analysis of policy documents published by individual nation studies, the EU and international agencies such as the OECD that the policy discourse surrounding academic mobility ‘privileges science, engineering and technology knowledge over knowledge generated by other disciplines and academic fields’ (p. 427). Such preferences are also practised in the worldwide allocation of scholarship and research fellowship offered to out-going local students and academics, and in-coming foreign students and academics.


This article has unsettled the broadly-circulated assumption that academic mobility promotes diversity and pluralism. It problematises the inclusion/exclusion power of academic mobility, which also runs strong in other mechanisms for further internationalisation of the academia. Mobility policy-makers and programme administrators have mostly presented academic mobility and international exchange/collaboration as per se progressive and positive – ‘a powerful mechanism for social change’ (Robertson 2010, p. 642). The analysis and discussion have, however, brought forth some of the darker sides of these often romanticised processes. In particular, I have highlighted the effect of academic mobility in undermining diversity. Increased academic mobility, together with other forces that push for further internationalisation in the academic field, has fortified the dominance of English language, which is accompanied by more conformed, rather than diverse, ways of working and communication in academia. Practically worldwide, academic mobility policies and programmes have hitherto opened disproportionally more opportunities to male, and scholars in the natural science, medical science, engineering and other technology-related fields. If academic mobility and international collaboration indeed contributes to positive development that can be realised at spatial levels ranging from the individual scholar to institutional, disciplinary, as well as city- and national levels, then we must ask if these opportunities are distributed in an equitable way. By making the above discussed biases related to academic mobility more visible, this article has contributed in opening up spaces to challenge, debate, and hopefully eliminate some of the structural inequality traversing the academic field through more reflexive policy and programme planning and implementation.


Ackers, L. (2000) ‘The participation of women researchers in the TMR Marie Curie Fellowships’ [Online]. Available at: ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/improving/docs/women_final_rpt_3march2000.pdf [accessed: 25 January 2013].

Ackers, L. (2004) ‘Managing relationships in peripatetic careers: scientific mobility in the European Union’ Women’s Studies International Forum 27(3): 189–201

Ackers, L. (2010) ‘Internationalisation and equality: the contribution of short stay mobility to progression in science careers’ Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques 41(1): 83–103.

Ackers L. and Gill, B. (2008) Moving People and Knowledge: Scientific Mobility in an Enlarging European Union. Cheltenham: Edward Edgar.

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (2011) Jahresbericht /Annual Report 2010. Bonn: Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. [Online]. Available at: http://www.humboldt-foundation.de/pls/web/docs/F179/jahresbericht_2010.pdf [accessed: 25 January 2013].

Cantwell, B. (2011) ‘Transnational mobility and international academic employment: gatekeeping in an academic competition arena’ Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy 49 (4): 425-445.

Curry, M. J. (2010) Academic Writing in a Global Context: The Politics and Practices of Publishing in English. London: Routledge.

Jöns, H. (2011) ‘Transnational academic mobility and gender’ Globalisation, Societies and Education 9(2): 183–209.

Kulis, S. and Sicotte, D. (2002) ‘Women scientists in academia: geographically constrained to big cities, college clusters, or the coasts?’ Research in Higher Education 43(1): 1–30.

Leemann, R.J. (2010) ‘Gender inequalities in transnational academic mobility and the ideal type of academic entrepreneur’ Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 31(5): 609-625.

Leung, M. (2011) ‘Of corridors and chains: translocal developmental impact of academic mobility between China and Germany’ International Development Planning Review 33(4): 475–489.

Leung, M. (2012) ‘Read ten thousand books, walk ten thousand miles’: geographical mobility and capital accumulation among Chinese scholars’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00526.x

Leung, M. (in progress) ‘Unsettling the yin-yang harmony: an analysis of gender as a social institution in regulating the Chinese-German academic mobility’. Under review.

Marwell, G., Rosenfeld, R. and Spilerman, S. (1979) Geographical constraints on women’s careers in academia. Science, 205 (4412), 1225–1231.

Robertson, S. L. (2010) ‘Critical response to special Section: international academic mobility’ Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 31 (5): 641-647.

Scheibelhofer, E. (2008) ‘How and why are mobilities gendered?: Gender still matters: mobility aspirations among European scientists working abroad’ in T. P. Uteng and T. Cresswell (eds) Gendered Mobilities. Aldershot: Ashgate. Pp. 115-128.

Thorn, K. and Holm-Nielsen, L. (2006) International mobility of researchers and scientists: policy options for turning a drain into a gain. World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University, Helsinki.

Welch, A. (2005) ‘From peregrinatio academica to the global academic: the internationalisation of the profession’ in A. Welch (ed.) The Professoriate: Profile of a Profession. Amsterdam: Springer. Pp. 71-96.

Maggi W. H. Leung: Associate Professor, Department of Human Geography and Planning, Utrecht University, 2013