Can joint PhDs get more Brits studying abroad?

Joint PhD programmes that split doctoral studies between different universities may help to improve low outward mobility

March 10, 2016
Australian rugby union fans, Twickenham Stadium, London, England
Source: Alamy
Continental drift: engineering students from Birmingham will travel to Melbourne as part of a new £2m fellowship scheme

Attracting huge numbers of postgraduates from across the world to its universities each year is arguably one of the UK’s most unheralded success stories.

Some 27,610 overseas postgraduate research students were based in the UK in 2013-14, up 24 per cent since 2007-08 – a total bettered only by the US, which had 126,000 in 2013-14, according to a report published by Universities UK’s International Unit this month.

But while the UK’s record on recruiting lucrative fee-paying postgraduates is impressive, very few British students have headed in the other direction: just 480 postgraduate research students from the UK studied abroad in 2013-14, about 2 per cent of the total 22,170 who undertook some kind of foreign study, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show.

That low figure comes despite repeated exhortations by the government for more outward student mobility, which evidence shows is good for graduate employability, trade links and improving impact and quality of research via better international collaboration.

So what can be done to make the postgraduate experience, particularly the PhD, less of a stay-at-home affair for British students?

The creation of a new joint PhD programme involving the University of Birmingham and the University of Melbourne may offer a model that other institutions may wish to emulate.

As part of a £2 million Priestley Fellowship scheme, named after the British geologist and Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestley who was vice-chancellor of both institutions, a total of 20 engineering PhD students will receive doctoral funding, dividing their studies between the UK and Australia.

Other links between the two institutions – both part of the Universitas 21 network of research universities – will also be deepened, with a £100,000 fund established to encourage collaborations and exchanges between staff at the two universities.

Keeping in touch

The new initiatives would begin “an exciting new era of close collaboration that will lead to high-quality research with global impact [and] exciting education initiatives for students”, said Birmingham’s vice-chancellor Sir David Eastwood.

But will many potential PhD students wonder about the benefits of splitting their study between two continents? Beyond the immediate practical challenges of finding accommodation and establishing a different friendship group, what about the loss of contact with your initial supervisor or research group at a crucial point in your studies?

Such concerns are understandable, but a smaller cohort on a joint PhD programme for medicine showed how these obstacles could be overcome, said Adam Tickell, provost and vice-principal at Birmingham, who recently visited the group in Melbourne.

“Skype is really transformative and all of the group have had weekly meetings with their supervisors, while also working with other staff in Melbourne,” said Professor Tickell.

“These are all science students who are going into a lab with other PhDs students and postdocs, so they are quickly part of a team,” he added.

Working out how to do well in a laboratory during a 12-to-18-month stint had also given PhD students a glimpse of life as a postdoc, often the next step for scientists, he said.

“In some sense, they are getting a head start on the postdoc culture."

In addition, students were exposed to different approaches, techniques and perspectives from world-leading scholars at a second university, while each institution offered facilities unavailable to the other, Professor Tickell said.

“Those students coming from Melbourne to Birmingham will have access to the largest genetic screening programme for rare diseases in the world,” he said, referring to the 100,000 Genomes Project, which is partly based at University Hospital Birmingham.

As for both universities, the extra administrative and travel costs associated with the Priestley scheme are outweighed by the higher quality of PhD student they expect to recruit, said Professor Tickell.

With a high premium still attached to attracting top PhD students, universities can be forgiven for not pushing their best and brightest to go overseas, so such partnerships might be the way forward to increasing postgraduate mobility.

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