DENMARK: Questions raised over PhD expansion

Denmark's state auditor is pressing the government to justify its policy of doubling the intake of PhD students at a cost of EUR700 million (US$1 billion), when a shortfall of Danish masters students means a large proportion of places will go to international students who tend to leave the country after completing their doctorates.

The intake of PhD students doubled between 2006 and 2010, when universities established 53 research schools in one of the largest investment programmes in Scandinavian higher education.

In 2010, 30% of new PhDs were from overseas - and in technological sciences 40% were international students.

Based on an international evaluation report in 2006, A Public Good - PhD education in Denmark, the Danish parliament agreed to target an intake of 2,800 new PhD students in 2012, up from 1,445 in 2005, an increase of 94%. During the expansion, doctoral training would be reorganised in doctorate schools.

The Auditor of State Accounts has warned the government that it will be tracking its detailed response to questions raised in a report in May, which due to the summer break is only now provoking a public debate.

The report questioned the rationale behind the policy and recommended new research into the employment demand for PhD candidates, notably in the private sector, and into steps that could be taken to ensure that more international PhDs choose to stay in Denmark after graduation.

The report says PhD positions are being filled by candidates from abroad because Danish universities are not producing enough masters graduates to fill them.

In Denmark, PhD students are normally employees of universities, with an attractive salary and no liability for tuition fees.

In 2006 parliament decided that priorities for the expansion of PhD positions should be in the natural sciences, health sciences and technological sciences. The report says that the ministry failed to analyse how the universities could provide sufficient masters candidates in these fields.

The percentage of foreign PhD students among new recruits increased from 15% in 2000 to 30% in 2009, while the number of foreign citizens working for a Danish PhD rose from 498 in 2000 to 1,462 in 2009. Of new entrants, the increase is from 133 foreign citizens in 2000, to 462 in 2009. In technological sciences the percentage of foreign citizens peaked at 43% in 2008, while for natural sciences the percentage rose from 13% in 2006 to 28% in 2009.

One of parliament's basic preconditions for the increased investment was that the international PhDs would benefit Denmark economically and socially. But the report says there is a clear risk that the PhDs will not stay in the country after graduation and their contribution to growth and welfare will be lost.

Professor Sverker Sørlin of the Royal Technological University in Stockholm, who chaired the 2006 evaluation consortium, told University World News that the expansion "is good for Denmark, for Danish society and for Danish industry".

He said that universities seemed to have been able to maintain and even improve the quality of training. This demonstrated that the 2006 evaluation was "timely".

But he thinks there may be a need to rethink priorities. Referring to the emphasis on the medical and technical sectors, he said: "I wonder if humanities and social sciences have been left too far behind? The grand challenges facing nations and humanity as a whole today require super-qualified people in all sectors and it is not just a matter of preparing people for business but for global problem-solving."

In 2007 a Danish Business Research Academy (DEA) investigation showed that the private sector employed 131% more PhDs than in 1998 - 125 compared to 54 with a greater increase likely if supply had matched demand.

Stina Vrang Elias, CEO of DEA, told University World News that there was a "clear need" for PhDs from disciplines other than natural sciences, technology and health. "We would have preferred that the investment had not excluded applicants from the social sciences and the humanities," she said.

She estimated that the demand for economists would be three times greater than supply in 2015.

The audit report says that it is not possible to establish what effect the setting up of 53 research schools has had on completion rates or time to completion.

The auditor has warned the government that it will track its recording of more detailed and comparable information on PhD education, and its analysis of how PhDs are contributing to the productivity of Danish companies, the chances of PhDs getting work, the recruitment of foreign students and chances of keeping them in Denmark after completion, and how effectively the investment in PhDs is increasing public research.

Meanwhile, university funding is projected to fall in 2012 and 2013 as a result of research funding being set at 1% of gross national product, which is falling. Universities Denmark says austerity measures proposed by the present government will lead to a EUR112.5 million (US$162.5) cut in funding to universities.

Rasmus Prehn, a spokesman for the opposition group of the Social Democrats and Socialist parties, said they would keep the governmental research budget at the 2011 level, should they be returned to power in the general election on 15 September.