NORWAY: Foreign postgraduates a must

Norway is heavily dependent on foreign students to recruit sufficient numbers for doctoral training, especially in mathematics, the natural sciences and technological studies, according to a government White Paper presented to parliament last year.

Of the 1,231 doctoral degrees awarded in 2008, 25% went to foreign students. But more than a third of those awarded a PhD in the natural sciences and technology studies were born outside the country. At the University of Tromso, 100 degrees were conferred and in those fields, more than 50% were awarded to foreign citizens.

Between 1990 and 2005, almost 1,400 foreign students qualified for a PhD, 14% of the total number of degrees conferred in this period. The number of foreigners among PhD students increased from 9% in early 1990 to around 20% in 2003-05.

Of the doctorate degrees taken by foreign citizens during these years, 29% were in mathematics and natural sciences and 22% in technological fields, a total of 51%. The corresponding figures for Norwegian doctoral candidates were 26% and 18%, a total of 44%.

The major sending country was China with 180 doctoral candidates from 1990-2005, with Germany in second place with 103 students and then Denmark with 91.

Among the foreigners awarded a Norwegian PhD between 1990 and 2003, 44% were still living and working in Norway by 2005 and 40% of these were in universities.

PhD students in Norway are usually employees of the institutions where they enrol and they earn a salary that is among the highest in Europe for doctoral candidates. In recent years, faculties of natural sciences and technology studies have experienced great difficulties in recruiting Norwegian candidates.

In the faculty of natural sciences at the University of Oslo in 1995, 18% of PhD students were from abroad while a decade later 30% were from other countries.

The University of Stavanger recently announced positions for doctoral studies in geology of relevance for the oil industry. Out of 96 applicants, only one was a Norwegian citizen. At Oslo University, Professor Knut Bjørlykke is worried that out of 17 masters students in petroleum geology and geophysics, 16 are foreigners.

Bjørlykke is also concerned that a number of the students have opted for Norway because they cannot get access to more prestigious universities in the US or UK. He says one reason is that students who complete a masters degree can get employment in the oil companies at salaries that might exceed US$100,000.

Professor Jarle Møen, from the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, is also worried that few Norwegian students are being recruited to the natural sciences.

Yet the government shows little concern, believing that research training with a clear international profile can attract more foreign citizens. Møen, says that while it is not controversial for research training to have an international profile, does the government want to create such a dependency on foreign applicants?

Frederic Sgard* at the OECD in Paris has monitored trends in science and technology doctorates in Europe and he comments on the Norwegian situation: "Overall, the situation in Norway is fairly typical of other European countries which have also experienced a clear drop of about 2% a year in the relative share of local students.

"Similarly, the proportion of foreign doctorate students is also fairly standard, about 25% being pretty average for European countries but far less than in the US or Australia.

"One of the weaknesses for Norway (even if it is even worse in some other countries) is the relatively small proportion of female PhD students in science and technology where females make up less than 30% of the student population."

* Click here to see Sgard's presentation to an OECD Global Science Forum on the demand for science and technology-skilled workers.