Skip navigation

Scholars without borders? Not quite.


The term “talent market” has always seemed vaguely obnoxious to me. Maybe it’s the extraction and objectification of “talent” as something apart from those who might have it and use it, and transformation into a product available for sale. Maybe it’s the fact that “talent” used in this way reminds me of a circus or sideshow (not without reason). Or perhaps it’s just that it’s another term like “creatives”, which is being mobilised in an increasingly pervasive rhetoric about who, or what, is most desirable in the “new” economy (what fate awaits the non-talented?).

In any case, the “talent market” certainly isn’t a “free market”, if such a thing is possible in any context. I’ve had multiple recent reminders of this fact. One example that stands out is something I mentioned in my last post, regarding the HASTAC panel I helped organise. Two of our panel members were unable to attend in person, one because of a lack of funding and the other because of problems obtaining a visa in time.

Clearly, not all scholars can be “mobile”, at least not mobile enough to participate in the “talent market”. Laws and restrictions apply differently according to one’s nationality, life history, immigration status, place of residence, access to funds, and so on. It’s not something I’ve experienced first-hand, because citizens of countries like Canada and New Zealand (where I was born and grew up) tend to have an easy ride. In fact New Zealand seems to be viewed as one of the most innocuous nations on the planet. I haven’t travelled a whole lot, but I’ve never needed a visa (only a visa waiver). Customs and immigration officers have greeted me with jokes about Marmite and sheep. They tend to look curiously at the Māori words in my passport (or uruwhenua Aotearoa) before stamping it and allowing me to go on my way; and in addition, because I have white skin and an Anglosphere accent, I have no problem being accepted at face value.

As for some of my colleagues, they have to plan to get permission for travel months in advance; they’re missing conference events (including their own scheduled presentations) in neighbouring countries because the required forms cannot be processed in time, or because of unpredictable glitches, or new and/or esoteric requirements for visas. As the gears of government bureaucracy grind away, precious professional opportunities are lost. That’s what happened to one member of our HASTAC panel, whose visa arrived after the conference had already begun – preventing her from presenting, and also from seeing friends and family in Canada.

Another side of this issue is that there are two kind of “mobility” in higher education. The preferred version involves having the resources and status to travel where you please, to take up opportunities in other places if you so desire. This means not only money but also prestige and other kinds of support (from institutions, mentors, and loved ones). It means either being single/unattached with little to worry about in terms of family, or alternately, having a family who are willing and able to be “mobile” as well. It means (potentially) being fluent in more than one language, preferably English plus another language. It also means having been able to demonstrate “merit” in the right ways. The candidates in this group are a part of the “élite” that every university wants to woo. They have won awards for their work; they represent the cream of the global scholarly crop. But obviously, they don’t make up the majority of those working in academe.

What about the other kind of mobility? The flip side of this deal is that some folks move because they have no choice: they have to take that tenure-track job no matter where it comes up, if they want tenure (or an academic career) at all. Mobility isn’t élite for everyone – not if it means moving far from home (possibly more than once) and working in precarious jobs because that’s what happens to be available, and not if it’s about feeling forced to leave your home country because there are no opportunities there at all. There are also more local versions of this phenomenon: in Ontario, for example, some academics have contract faculty positions at more than one institution, spending a disproportionate amount of time commuting from campus to campus. Yet even this requires resources of a kind that some academics won’t be able to access (such as a car, or convenient transit).

For all these reasons and undoubtedly many more, the “talent market” is clearly a deeply unequal one, and is not genuinely meritocratic; it’s a reflection, indeed an amplification, of existing inequalities. Specifically for academics, when combined with the tendency towards élite, targeted funding and emphasis on overseas recruitment of “the best”, and an increasingly stratified and fragmented academic workforce, we have to ask what the globalised (and polarised) professoriate is going to look like. If it’s going to follow the same lines as other aspects of globalisation such as so-called free trade, then I think we can do a whole lot better.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Kristen / May 10, 2013 at 11:28

    Yes! I had to forgo applying for one ideal summer adjunct job in another city this year because the evening class meeting time would have made it impossible to catch a bus or train back to Toronto in time, and I can’t afford a hotel stay every time.

    For me, in terms of academic travel, there’s also the issue of discriminatory size restrictions on airplane seating, and thus my inability to attend most events that are further away than I can reach by bus/train. Some bodies have much more socially enabled ‘mobility’ than others.

  2. Iffath U.B. Syed / May 24, 2013 at 09:16

    Thank you for posting such an interesting piece, I appreciate two of your points because of my research interests [in race, class, and precarious employment]: 1) your discussion of relative ease of access across international borders and mobility, especially bearing ‘white skin’ and an ‘Anglosphere’ accent; and 2) The fact that even highly educated, new academics might not have the resources to participate fully in fair occupational/environmental conditions (i.e. commute times; competitive stress). While the former point of the border mobility issue indicates a sharp contrast to that of racialized groups, the latter point is somewhat of a parallel experience to that of racialized groups, who not only lack similar resources, but are also over-worked and under-employed.

« »