Research at risk from student mobility disruption, warns OECD

Latest Education at a Glance report says that impact of pandemic on international recruitment is about more than fee income 

September 8, 2020
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Disruption to international student recruitment from the coronavirus pandemic could have a major impact on research and innovation in some countries for years to come, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has warned.

In its annual report comparing education performance among its members, the group points out that one in five doctoral students in OECD countries comes from abroad, with the share exceeding 40 per cent in nations such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK.

A downturn in PhD recruitment therefore “risks affecting productivity in advanced sectors” of some OECD nations, in addition to the potential hit to university income in countries where high fees are charged to overseas students.

The warning comes in Education at a Glance 2020, the OECD’s annual compendium of statistics on all levels of education, which this year provides an additional focus on areas that could be impacted by the pandemic.

It says the crisis had “exposed the value proposition of universities” because internationally mobile students often chose to travel for the in-person benefits they would gain, such as networking and access to job opportunities, something not easily replaceable by online education.

“Students are unlikely to commit large amounts of time and money to consume online content. Students go to universities to meet great people, have inspiring conversations with faculty, collaborate with researchers in the laboratory and experience the social life on campus,” the report says.

As a result, universities in the OECD faced a drop in demand due to the pandemic with “severe repercussions” for the “funding model of some higher education institutions where international students pay higher tuition fees”.

But, it adds, “the financial losses are not limited to higher education institutions. Countries have traditionally relied on international student mobility to facilitate the immigration of foreign talent and contribute to both knowledge production and innovation nationally.

“Indeed, international student mobility is particularly high for doctoral programmes, where one in five students comes from abroad on average across OECD countries. A decline in international student mobility in these countries risks affecting productivity in advanced sectors related to innovation and research in the coming years.”

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, said online doctoral education was not a substitute for “PhD students that are on site in laboratories and seminars and active and major contributors to a research community and its programmes and projects”.

“Many talented doctoral students have options and will not want to come to countries where online study or highly limited onsite engagement is the norm,” Professor Marginson said.

He added that this was a problem for countries with the highest shares of PhD students from abroad, but also the US, which was “heavily dependent” on postgraduate students in pure science fields.

“Once again, the East Asian systems…with their more responsible management of the pandemic…and hence their more favourable environments for mobile doctoral students in terms of access and health risk, are likely to strengthen their position relative to the English-speaking countries and most of Europe,” Professor Marginson added.

One exception in Europe, according to the data, could be Germany where just 12 per cent of doctoral students were from outside the country in 2018, one of the lowest figures in Europe and well below the OECD overall figure of 22 per cent.

However, the OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, said that while countries with more domestic graduates may have an advantage as travel was restricted, he did not think this was a “long-term answer”.

“In the long run, those countries that do best in attracting the best and brightest from all over the world will drive innovation,” he said.

“So the question is not just how to produce more domestic students, but how universities can reinvent themselves to provide a better value proposition among the constraints of a pandemic.”



On general higher education funding, the report says it could take a few years before the impact of the pandemic filters through into budget cuts, given that the first signs of a drop in public spending on education after the 2007-08 financial crash started appearing in 2010.

However, figures in the report – which stem from before the pandemic and mostly run up to 2018 – show how some systems appeared to have only recently recovered from that crash in terms of funding.

Just seven countries in the OECD with available data had increased their overall funding for tertiary education as a percentage of GDP in 2017 compared with 2012. The average for the group was also still lower in 2017 than in 2005.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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