Australian universities are outsourcing their research productivity to international recruits, with a new analysis concluding that almost four out of five additional doctoral students recruited over the past decade have been imported from overseas.
The study, by former University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Frank Larkins, found that international enrolments in research degree programmes had grown more than seven times as quickly as domestic enrolments.
This figure understated the trend, because foreign PhD students were three times as likely as locals to be full-time.
In equivalent full-time terms, international PhD student load had increased by 111 per cent compared with 11 per cent for domestic students. Foreigners now contributed about two-fifths of PhD effort compared with about one-quarter in 2008.
Meanwhile, a decline in the share of research-active academics suggested an impending crisis in Australian universities’ ability to accommodate these would-be PhDs. Student numbers, fuelled by overseas recruitment, had grown at three times the rate of their supervisors.
“Overseas students make a valuable contribution to the creation of new knowledge,” Professor Larkins says in a paper published by the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute. “However many of them will leave Australia, so the economic benefit of much of the new knowledge and higher-level skills training may be lost to the nation.
“The declining proportion of domestic doctoral students, with a trend to part-time research, has the potential to erode Australia’s higher-level skills base.”
The analysis found that international PhD students now outnumbered their domestic equivalents in engineering and information technology, and had surged in science, management and commerce – leaving domestic students to dominate the humanities and social sciences.
The switch to overseas students had been most pronounced at the prestigious Group of Eight universities, where international PhD load had doubled. Domestic load had increased by just 3 per cent across the network, going backwards at four Go8 universities.
This had “significant implications” because of the Go8’s wealth of high-quality research infrastructure and staff, Professor Larkins said, adding that funding cuts – most recently the capping of the Research Support Program – would further discourage domestic PhDs.
“Universities evidently consider there are more institutional benefits, including international rankings, from using discretionary income to recruit overseas students than for other purposes,” the paper says. “This…will further accelerate a disturbing trend undermining Australia’s capacity for domestic skills development, innovation and international competitiveness.
“This is not the future a modern Australia, embedded in a globalised digital world, should be aspiring to create.”