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​In the times of increasing populism and right wing governments, the UK leaving the European Union and strong anti-immigration public discourse, the question of the attracting and retaining academic talent to ensure the competitiveness of the sciences and higher education systems in Europe remains paramount. We have seen that in today’s highly competitive academic labour market human resource policies and especially the ability to attract highly mobile and talented faculty are key ingredients of success for universities and economies worldwide. This is true for countries that traditionally have been the primary receivers and attractors of foreign academic talent – European academic centers like the UK and Austria (25% of the faculty are foreign nationals), the Netherlands (30%), Norway, Denmark and Ireland (30%), Switzerland (51%).  

With right-wing influenced policies and especially moves like Brexit these numbers will certainly be going down. Is this then an opportunity for other countries to increase their academic talent base? Looking at the countries that have been ‘losing’ their academic talent like the Central and Eastern European Countries (the academic peripheries to use Altbach’s term) one can imagine that such systems may have an opportunity in the current context to become more attractive to local as well as foreign academic talent. Our recent study of Estonia, Czech Republic and Lithuania —the traditionally closed systems with their language, transition economies, distinctive culture and histories — has shown that faculty flows were mainly outbound rather than inbound (Leisyte and Rose, 2016, Rose and Leisyte, 2016).

These countries have participated in European Blue Card program since 2007, are involved in Erasmus staff mobility schemes and have established Euraxess centers with various degrees of success.

When we look what usually motivates faculty to go abroad, we find labour market as well as professional reasons, such as salary, credibility building, more academic freedom, more time for research as well as access to knowledge and state-of-the art infrastructure (Ackers, 2004;  Fernández-Zubieta et al. 2015). At the same time, looking at barriers to mobility, we can see personal reasons, such as a lack of funding, low salary levels, no open recruitment, difficulties with accommodation, incompatibility of social security schemes, healthcare insurance and pensions. For both outgoing and incoming mobility personal ties and relationships are also quite important in CEE countries (Leisyte and Rose, 2016). 

When looking at the Czech Republic and Lithuania, we found that the key barriers to attracting talented faculty from abroad include comparatively low salaries, lack of transparency for recruitment and promotion procedures, a high degree of academic nepotism and inbreeding, and lack of foreign language (usually English) competencies among local academic staff and local language requirements for foreign faculty.

Even though some of the policy rhetoric points to the imperative of attracting academic talent from abroad, concrete mechanisms and requirements as well as problems with legal salary schemes remain largely unresolved. At the same time, we observe that the CEE countries have significantly improved their research infrastructure with the state-of-the-art equipment, benefitting from EU Structural Funds. Additionally, we observe that universities in CEE countries have increased the number of programmes taught in foreign languages, usually English. This facilitates the participation of foreign faculty in educational activities. Further, we observed that individual institutions in these countries engaged in alternative strategies, such as guest professorships, public-private partnerships, that are more attractive to international faculty that contribute to better remuneration and more time for research activities.

Among the CEE countries, Estonia stands out as implementing concrete policies at the national and institutional levels to open recruitment to foreign faculty (Leisyte and Rose, 2016). It looks like clear national strategies can be extremely helpful in fostering incoming academic staff mobility. Even though one can argue that CEE higher education systems will be shrinking due to demographic changes in the age cohorts, the wish to compete in these countries is increasing.  This means that there may be more institutional awareness of the importance in tapping into the global talent and the will to pursue it.

One does not need to look far to realize that the ability of playing the competitive game on the global stage by publishing in English and winning European grants is strongly influenced by the talent one has in one’s own institution. How will this play out with populism and right-wing orientation in CEE countries? I hope that the countries that have been at the forefront of opening up and pursuing foreign talent along with repatriating expats will serve as an example for overcoming past barriers that led to isolation and kept institutions at the periphery.  A new window of opportunity may have opened up as countries like the UK and the US that welcomed international scholars with open arms in the past, may be less welcoming. And this might be to the advantage of the CEE countries and elsewhere, provided they will not follow the suit in terms of increasing isolation.

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