The campus of University of Waterloo, which is on the verge of signing three "stellar" academics anxious to flee post-Brexit UK. It’s not the only university to have professors from Britain and the U.S. seek out jobs here because of political developments.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May formally set in motion her country’s departure from the EU last week, the historic move underscored what could be a surprising windfall for some Canadian universities.
At least two major institutions say last year’s Brexit vote in the U.K. prompted a number of “stellar” academics to ask for jobs here, worried that Britain’s research and social climate is deteriorating.
Recruitment deals for some of them are likely to be consummated in the next few weeks, while a similar phenomenon has seen top American scholars reach out to Canadian universities, too, they say.
“The level of interest from outside of the country is probably unprecedented,” said Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto. “It is across many different disciplines and across the demographic spectrum: post-docs and junior faculty right through to mid-career, to truly established stars who want to move here.”
At the University of Waterloo, a number of high-level university scholars – mostly in the maths, engineering and science – contacted administrators shortly after the U.K. voted to leave the European Community last June.
Feridun Hamdullahpur, the university’s president, said he could not reveal identities yet but three major catches are in the final stages of negotiating contracts, the first likely to be announced within a week or two.
He described them as “stellar researchers,” at least as good in quality as those typically awarded federally funded Canada Research Chairs.
“These are very senior, top-level academic colleagues who have contacted us … to say that they were very interested in moving to Canada, moving to the University of Waterloo, right after the Brexit vote,” said Hamdullahpur. “They cited several reasons why they were doing this, but they said that Canada would be a better place for them to raise their families, and also continue their academic careers.”
Much has been said about the surge in foreign students applying to Canadian schools in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. election, but the recruitment of top-notch and otherwise hard-to-woo faculty could have a much more lasting impact.
Like Waterloo and other universities, U of T has always recruited a sizeable chunk of its faculty from outside the country, but at a recent meeting of 100 or so department heads, Gertler asked how many had received unsolicited overtures about moving here from foreign professors recently. Three quarters shot up their hands.
A number of resulting recruitment deals are in the pipeline, with announcements expected before the end of May, he said.
“The non-Canadians who are most keen to come here are folks who emigrated to the U .S. or the U.K. from elsewhere and no longer feel quite as comfortable, or no longer feel that the future is as bright for them or as secure for them as they once thought,” he said.
A top Ivy League professor and expert in artificial intelligence told the Financial Post he was in talks to decamp to an unnamed Canadian university, citing the perception that some ethnic groups are not welcome in the States. “This is not the right place to live right now,” he said.
The British academics who have approached Toronto have also cited the all-important availability of research funding. UK universities won a disproportionate total of the research grants issued by the EU, and stand to lose hundreds of millions of pounds because of Brexit, Gertler said.
“The conversation when I was in London last week was all about ‘How are we going to replace those funds?’ ” he said. “One academic I talked to said ‘I’m trying to recruit people to the UK from outside the UK, and it’s really tough right now. And I’m losing people as well.’ ”.
At the same time, Gertler said there are “pull” factors making senior professors look to Canada. They include the “fresh face” of the Liberal government, increased research funding in the 2016 federal budget and the Canada 150 Research Chair program announced in last month’s budget – money to create 25 positions for top international scholars.
But the government must make the research-chair program nimble and continue to show its support for research to “seize advantage” of the current climate, said the U of T president.
“Now is the time to be doing it.”
Meanwhile, not all universities seem to be benefiting from a Brexit/Trump faculty influx.
Spokesmen for both Queen’s University in Ontario and the University of British Columbia said they had no evidence of a recruitment bump, while McGill University failed to respond to requests for comment.
Waterloo’s Hamdullahpur acknowledged that it will likely prove to be a short-term phenomenon.
“We cannot ride on this for too long,” he said. “This is just a momentary thing. Our focus should be long term and how we will build our base of excellence so we will be able to attract the best and brightest all the time.”