In ”The Disposable Academic”, The Economist argued that "doing a PhD” was often a waste of time. However, this pessimism does not reflect the experience of all students, as evidenced by increasing numbers of doctoral students from the global South heading to the advanced economies of the North in the past 20 years.  Many source countries for doctoral students are still experiencing the growing pains of economic development and qualitative maturity; their higher education systems are not immune to these challenges.

Limited opportunities for economic rewards and professional recognition for students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree and a career in research and academia reflect the qualitative challenges of higher education in developing countries.

This equation of reward and recognition becomes even more acute in certain fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM areas, where a large proportion of foreign doctoral students are enrolled.

This is primarily due to the disinclination of domestic students to enrol in these programmes, combined with the strong reputation of many universities in the West.

In search of professional and economic rewards, many international students decide to remain in the host countries after earning doctoral degrees. But the stay rates differ by country of origin and fields of study, according to Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

International students earning doctoral degrees in a few disciplines such as economics and other social sciences have substantially lower stay rates than those in STEM-related disciplines. This indicates a high degree of professional advancement, not only in academia but also industry.

Likewise, stay rates for countries such as China, India, Iran, Romania and Bulgaria are well above average, as compared to countries like Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and New Zealand. This indicates that opportunities for returning students vary greatly by country.

So two primary factors influence mobility and stay rates of international doctoral students: the comparative access to opportunities for doctoral training and professional advancement between their host and home countries.

Future trends and implications

How is the mobility of international students at doctoral level likely to shift in the next 20 years? It will be shaped by the collision of two counter-trends enabling and limiting mobility.

The expansion of undergraduate-level higher education in developing countries is increasing the supply of students who qualify for and aspire to a doctoral education. This will continue to fuel the mobility of foreign students seeking doctoral education abroad.

Concurrently, as the quality of the higher education system in the source countries improves, outward mobility may become more limited, as the differences in quality between domestic universities and foreign ones narrow.

Likewise, in terms of stay rate, two counter-trends will be at work. Students who go abroad to earn doctoral degrees may not stay to work because of the improving opportunities for economic reward and professional advancement in their home countries.

Simultaneously, the proactive immigration policies of host countries, devised to encourage talent retention, may effectively implore international students to remain.

In a previous article in University World News, Hans de Wit and Nannette Ripmeester mention that “the knowledge economies of OECD countries require highly skilled people, whom they will lack due to ageing populations and falling interest among young people in sciences and engineering. Immigrants with the requisite skills are needed to fill the gaps".

Overall, this complex interplay of counter-trends will shape the future mobility of international students seeking doctoral education.

Based on the limited success of developing countries in instigating meaningful reforms in their higher education sectors, it is safe to predict that doctoral talent mobility will continue to be strong with high stay rates, especially in STEM-related fields.

Key source countries have to work harder and smarter to retain talent and provide competitive opportunities for developing and engaging talent, as Brazil does with Science Without Borders or Chile does with Becas.

Global mobility of doctoral talent has both positive and negative effects, which differ at the country and individual level.

At one level, ‘brain drain’ may deprive a developing country from utilising its citizens’ talents for direct contribution towards the advancement of the citizen's country; but at another level it could provide a productive pathway for an individual to maximise potential and achieve socioeconomic upward mobility.

According to a report published by the National Science Foundation, the negative implications of PhD mobility have received more attention than positive outcomes, in part due to measurement difficulties:

“Although data on international migration are often poor, counts of initial migrations of people are easier to obtain than data on return migration or return knowledge flows,” the report states. It then sums up: “…international high-skill migration is likely to have a positive effect on global incentives for human capital investment”.

So doctoral talent mobility will continue to reflect the reality of an interconnected, globalised world where individuals and nations try to maximise their growth and competitiveness.

The key is not to frame global talent mobility as a zero-sum game and that applies to doctoral talent too. After all, the academic is not yet disposable, not least the globally mobile ones of tomorrow.

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