Half the nation’s PhD holders are from overseas

In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants referred to the Australian gold fields as Xin Jin Shan, the New Gold Mountain, whereas the Californian gold rush was in decline and had become known as Jiu Jin Shan, the Old Gold Mountain. In the 21st century, a new group of Chinese has come to Australia seeking the gold that is linked to obtaining a degree.

Although universities in many Western countries are enrolling increasing numbers of Chinese, few could match the proportionate flood into Australian higher education, where the offspring of parents in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore now number more than 150,000.

These Chinese students represent a startling 45% of the 333,000 from around the world who collectively comprise 27% of the 1.22 million students enrolled on Australian university campuses.

As with most international students, though, the Chinese tend to opt for an undergraduate degree – often in management and commerce but also in the sciences and especially medicine – and only a small minority go on to undertake doctoral studies.

In fact, of the 300,000 Australian and international students who were awarded a university diploma or degree in 2011, 108,000 were from overseas and of these a mere 2,000 had completed a PhD.

The global mobility typical of those seeking or being awarded a doctorate tends to cease when foreign students obtain their degrees in Australia, and a significant proportion stay on as permanent residents.

Monash University demographer Dr Bob Birrell points out that government amendments to the immigration rules in recent years mean that a student who earns a PhD will now almost certainly qualify for a residency visa.

“Gaining a place in higher education, particularly at the postgraduate level, is now seen by international students as a pathway into Australian residency,” Birrell says.

“In the early 2000s, relatively few foreign postgraduates stayed on, but with the huge expansion in their numbers and the government’s relaxation of migration requirements, that has changed; now a PhD virtually guarantees the student a permanent stay in this country.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that of the 118,400 people – out of a population of 23 million – who held doctorates in 2011, at least half were born elsewhere around the globe.

Although not all were former students who obtained degrees here, nearly 25% of the PhD holders who join the Australian workforce each year are from other countries, either as international PhD students, research postdocs or academics and other migrants.

These highly educated individuals make a substantial contribution to Australian research, to industry and commerce, to the health and natural sciences, and in boosting the education levels of the overall population.

The rise of the PhD

Yet Australian universities did not start awarding doctorates until 1948, when the University of Melbourne created the first three Australian PhDs.

A year later, all of Australia’s then few universities were offering doctorate programmes and while they awarded a mere eight PhDs in 1950, nearly 600 in 1970 and more than 800 in 1980, by 2000 the number had jumped to 3,250 and this figure nearly doubled again in 2011, when almost 7,000 received the award.

In a report on The Changing PhD prepared for Australia’s Group of Eight research-intensive universities, Dr Les Rymer notes that the proportion of international students starting a PhD jumped from 21% in 2002 to 37% in 2011, when more than 4,000 international students joined 7,000 locals to start a PhD programme.

“This cultural enrichment has advantages for PhD education (and can potentially help increase the pool of talent available to Australian employers) but can also create challenges as international students sometimes face problems or issues different from those that domestic students experience and may require additional or different kinds of support,” Rymer writes in a comment that would apply in many universities around the world.

“One consequence of this increasing diversity within any cohort is that students taking the same course are likely to have different needs and expectations, as well as a range of unique individual situations that will affect their ability to participate in the course directly and as part of a broader learning community.

“Some students may be seeking credentials that will help advance their careers or employment opportunities, others may be there to follow up personal interests, hobbies or even to use the course as a retirement activity.”

Rymer says that unlike in past years, in many disciplines it is now unusual for students to move directly from an undergraduate degree to postgraduate training or to be doing their PhD full-time. In 2011, the average age at commencement of a PhD was 33 while a 2010 survey found more than 10% of research students were aged from 50-59.

Another study of Australian PhDs, by Dr Ian Dobson, found that overseas PhD students were more likely to be aged in their 30s compared with their younger local colleagues, and about half the international postgraduates completing a PhD were in this age range.

Other investigations have shown that the number of employed individuals with a doctorate by research will increase by more than 3% a year over the period to 2020. This is a direct result of the government’s “aspirations for expanding university education, increasing business investment in research and the need to address major problems such as climate change”, as Rymer says.

Anglo-Australian alliance for PhD study

An alliance between Monash University in Melbourne and the University of Warwick in Britain this month launched an innovative transnational joint PhD programme with seed funding of £500,000, equivalent to A$750,000, over the next three years.

The project was described as establishing “seamless global research and teaching opportunities for staff and students” from the two universities. It will create opportunities for 30 students to study under research leaders, while tacking challenges in a broad range of disciplines.

Professor Andrew Coats, director of the Monash-Warwick Alliance, sees this as a ground-breaking step in training “the brightest minds of tomorrow” and giving them a global approach to problem-solving and the ability to seek support and expertise across two systems linking Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s a big step forward in our global leadership ambitions,” Coates says, adding that the joint degrees would initially be offered in a range of areas from the faculties of science, arts, engineering and IT.

Professor Jacqueline Labbe, chair of the University of Warwick graduate school, says students require an international education to compete in a challenging employment market, whether they choose to stay within academia or go into business or industry.

Labbe says the launch of the Monash-Warwick joint PhD programme was a response to this changing environment.

The first group of PhD students is expected to start in September and they will spend a substantial amount of time at each institution “to emerge as globally engaged graduates”. Students eligible for home status at either university will be considered as home students for the whole programme while international students will be supported through the processes of registering in both countries.