The culture of a university is intimately linked to the culture of the society within which it operates and is embedded. Universities are shaped heavily by the norms and values most salient to the host country. Thus, if a nation values freedom and openness, its universities similarly tend to be free and open. Where a culture is oppressive and tyrannical, universities tend to be so, as well.
Because of the link between national culture and organizational culture, choosing a university in which to work means that you’re also choosing a country in which to live. Choose wisely. To be sure, there is, objectively speaking, no single “best” country to be an academic, in the same way that there is no single “best” university (world university rankings be damned!). But I suspect that if you and I were to rank countries independently on where the best place to work in academia is, we would likely come up with a pretty similar list.
“Because of the link between national culture and organizational culture, choosing a university in which to work means that you’re also choosing a country in which to live. Choose wisely.”
I know a thing or two about cross-national higher education. I have worked or studied at universities in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. I concede that I’ve not visited every country in the world, so you can take this article with a grain of salt, but I’m reasonably well poised to make comparisons between countries.
First, we’ll start with places that are not suitable to academic work. In this broad bucket I would put virtually any authoritarian country that does not allow freedom of expression for its citizens and residents. Even though academic pay can be pretty good in some “one party” states, I would be loath to sacrifice my autonomy as a researcher and a lecturer for the money. It’s just not worth it.
Having said that, pay is important, as is access to academic resources (e.g., books and journal articles) as well as technologies and equipment. Using these criteria, the best universities to work in as an academic are probably located in North America, Europe (including the UK and Ireland), East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
I have taught at American and British universities, so I’ll start there. Universities in the US offer higher pay than those in the UK, but British universities offer better job security/ easier pathways to tenure than American universities. European universities (including in Ireland) are similar to British universities, although the pay is even less still. All of these countries are alike in terms of academic freedom and access to resources and technologies.
Democratic East Asia (e.g., Japan, South Korea) has some fairly good universities as well. They are well equipped, but salaries are comparatively low and living costs are exceedingly high. In South Korea, the universities do not offer much in the way of job security for expatriates, I’ve heard.
Focusing only on universities in the English-speaking world, we’re left with the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Within this group, I would immediately dump the US, the UK, and Ireland. Each of these countries has great universities—arguably the best in the world, but in terms of quality of life, they don’t even come close to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
And so we come down to three! I know all three countries well, and it’s very difficult to choose one over the others. But if I had to choose, I’d go with . . . drum roll . . . Australia! New Zealand would be a lovely place to work in academia, but the country is not very cosmopolitan, and its universities do not command much research power. Canada would be a great place to live and work, but its tenure track is modeled on the American system, so job security is hard to come by (not to mention the freezing winters). Australia, on the other hand, has it all. On research, its universities punch way above their weight internationally. It has high levels of job security, like in the UK and Europe. The pay is very high, nearly (but not quite) at North American levels. Freedom of speech is respected, with rare exceptions. The weather here is balmy, and the quality of life is extremely high. In short, in Australia, you can have your cake and eat it as an academic. Come join us Down Under!
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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