Growth of doctorates changes global research landscape

Huge increases in the number of students graduating from university with PhDs are occurring in countries around the world, delegates attending a conference on doctoral education were told.

The European University Association's Third Global Strategic Forum on Doctoral Education heard that large investments were taking place in research and development, notably in emerging economies: Brazil saw a 100% increase in the number of students graduating with doctorates between 2000 and 2009, while China experienced a 400% jump between 1998 and 2008.

The conference, held at the University of Iceland last month, focused on "the doctorate and the talent pipeline". Delegates heard that all indicators pointed to a major leap forward with regard to the increasing number of doctoral candidates worldwide, with a plethora of changes now taking place.

European University Association, or EUA, Secretary General Lesley Wilson characterised this development as a “move towards a more multi-polar research landscape”. Wilson said she could now see evidence of converging trends in doctoral education worldwide: discourse and growth.

The discourse of modern societies meant "the language of knowledge societies had become global while the challenges had to be met with regard to new knowledge and innovation".

CODOC project

In 2010-12 the EUA ran a CODOC project – Cooperation on Doctoral Education between Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe – that examined doctoral education “through the lens of a more balanced development in global knowledge”.

Three factors were identified as the main drivers of the project:
  • • Changes in global interconnectivity due to internationalisation;
  • • Increased drive to develop knowledge societies based on high-skilled human resources; and
  • • The growth in information and communication technology with its effect on competition and collaboration in a global market.

Describing the discourse dimension as a driver, Wilson cited reports from South Africa, Malaysia and Tanzania, saying it was “extremely important in the current global knowledge society, where the complexities of world and local problems required people with high-level education to solve them”.

The second driver, Wilson said, was growth in the number of doctorates awarded in the EU, US and Latin America where, between 2004 and 2010, all three saw a 50% increase in doctoral graduates.

She also referred to the increased spending on research and development by OECD middle-income countries, from US$600 billion in 2005 to more than US$1,000 billion in 2010.

But even though growth in research was strong in the emerging economies, there was a big gap in human resources for research and development, according to World Bank statistics, measured by the number of researchers per one million population.

The US and Japan both have more than 5,000 scientists per one million population, while Europe has around 3,000, but China, even with a 95% increase over the last decade, still has around 1,000.

Wilson said that within five years as projected in 2011: in Africa 41% of university staff would have a PhD, compared with 33% at that time; in Asia 62% would have a PhD versus 49% at that time and Latin America 40% against the level of 31% at that time.

On the CODOC survey question in 2011, “Do you manage to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of doctorate holders for your own institution?”, one in four reported problems, with significantly higher proportions in Africa and Latin America.

On the basis of this comparison Wilson discussed the boost for innovation-technology transfer and the quest of former EU Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn in 2011 to have established one million research-related jobs within five years.

A significant proportion of universities that found it challenging to build or sustain research capacity reported recruitment of researchers and brain drain as factors.

Of the additional drivers and bottlenecks, Wilson said that some systems have expanded postgraduate doctoral admissions more than the increase in bachelor and masters graduates, and so there were "insufficient national pipelines", which forced universities to recruit PhD students internationally. The UK had 29% recruited from outside in 2012 and France 42% in 2011-12 (including French residents with non-French citizenship).

Summing up

Summing up, Wilson said the hunt for talent in the research sector raised questions about the whole pipeline and whether more should be done to look at access to education and identify social and cultural barriers.

Both US and European colleagues pointed to the fact that funding has become increasingly targeted towards grand challenges and that money came with ever more strings attached in terms of performance.

This had a direct impact on talent development as there was an incentive to take less risk in recruitment and to go for one particular kind of candidate, ignoring other aspects of talent. This risk avoidance could limit recruitment to safe candidates for safe projects and in the end make for less exciting research.

The global forum on doctoral education is the third in a series of similar events, the first one hosted by Aarhus University, Denmark, in 2011, and the second one at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, in 2013.