20 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Global competition for (new kinds of) PhDs heats up

Higher education is at a crossroads. In many countries there has been a reduction in public funding for universities. ‘Baby boomers’ are retiring at a disproportional rate compared to the number of new PhDs entering the university system. And global competition for the best and brightest will invariably escalate.

Meanwhile, as the realities of the 21st century present a strong case for the reexamination of the PhD in its current form, governments the world over have decided that higher education, research and innovation systems that are tightly linked to economic development are a prerequisite for a knowledge economy.

These were some of the issues addressed in a paper titled “Key Challenges and Strategic Options for Research and Research Training”, presented at the second QS-MAPLE conference, in Durban, South Africa, this month by Ĺsa Olsson, programme manager of the OECD’s programme on Innovation, Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, or IHERD.

In conceptualising the IHERD programme, Olsson said, it was recognised that “we have to find ways to leverage knowledge and produce new products, services, organisation methods, business models and innovations to move our societies ahead.

“At times of crisis when we are not clear about what we actually know and what we need to know, we need to make certain that we have a knowledge base that we can steer in a way we can address global and local challenges for today and for tomorrow.”

Less scientifically developed countries, Olsson stressed, needed to be willing to adopt and learn from more scientifically advanced countries. But this was not about blind copying.

“The basic assumption is, you can learn from each other. To learn and improve, look at those systems working better than yours. But avoid imitation. If it is not adjusted to your context, if it is an imitation of someone performing better than you, it is not going to help you perform better. So you have to match your policy priorities with your needs.”

Four categories of innovation and excellence

She pointed out that currently there were four broad categories of innovation and excellence when it came to science and technology on a global scale:

  • Scientifically lagging countries – ones that lack science, technology and innovation capacity almost entirely. For example, Indonesia, “which is actually a middle-income country but very weak in terms of its scientific capacity”, Burkina Faso and Syria.
  • Scientifically developing countries – ones with pockets of adequate science, technology and innovation capacity amid general scarcity. For example, Portugal, India, Iran, Pakistan and Uganda.
  • Scientifically proficient countries – ones that display world-class capacity in science, technology and innovation in certain areas. For example, Singapore, Estonia, Korea and China.
  • Scientifically advanced countries – ones that can boast advanced science, technology and innovation capacities in all major areas. These countries, she said, namely the US, the UK, Germany, Japan and Australia, publish most of the articles in internationally recognised journals and fund 80% of the world’s research and development.

It was essential for all countries to connect to the global knowledge pool. And to bridge development gaps, there was a need to work on many levels at the same time, including targeting investments in advanced training and research in areas of comparative advantage and selecting key areas to build institutional capacity.

Global competition for academics

One key area of concern with major global ramifications was the impact of the retirement of ‘baby boomers’ from universities and other tertiary institutions. Between 2000 and 2010, OECD universities lost 20% to 33% percent of their academics.

In Australia, Austria, France, Germany, the UK, The Netherlands and Sweden, 40% of academics are currently aged 55 or older. In the UK, 19,000 academics will be needed by 2020. Canada needs to recruit 3,000 academics per year for the next 10 years.

“We are an interconnected world and the competition for the best and brightest might make it tempting to poach academic staff from developing countries to fill the gaps.

“That is why coherence is so important. Because if, on the one hand, you try to boost your national capacity, and then some years later this is taken away from you, it is cause for concern.”

Reexamining doctoral training

In view of global demands and concerns, Olsson said, current thinking was towards “reexamining the role and purpose of doctorate training”.

“The contemporary form of the doctorate as a research degree was conceptualised in Europe in the early 19th century. That’s quite a long time ago,” she pointed out.

It was adopted in the US in the mid-19th century, in Britain in 1917, in Australia in 1948 and later still in the rest of the world. “There is considerable variety in the duration of the doctorate, how it is funded, the examination processes – and the value attached.

“We know from the university context that the majority of the people who complete a doctorate do not work as academics. Many become leaders in other areas, in both the public and private sector.

“Even if you consider the doctorate important for an academic career, completing a doctorate does not give adequate preparation in teaching skills, which is still the key component of academic work.”

There were a number of reasons to rethink the nature of academic work. There was also the shift from elite to mass higher education to take into consideration.

“We have faced the reduction of public funding for universities and this has resulted in declining employment conditions. We are increasingly dependent on casual academic staff. There are fewer opportunities to engage in research.

“And competition for talent will not only be fuelled by demographics but also by the apparent lack of interest in an academic career, at least in OECD countries, on the part of many young people, including PhD graduates.

“So if we have just a bit of imagination we can envisage an almost endless variety of career options that have to be addressed within the university. We can’t just have the simplistic assistant-lecturer-senior-associate-professor ladder. There must be some creativity in this.

“This is set to cause a lot of challenges to institutions and on the policy level.”

Olsson said the IHERD programme was currently addressing some of these issues and a number of studies would be carried out this year. She invited any academic interested in contributing to any of the studies to contact her at asa.olsson@oecd.org.
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