US-China tension could drive PhD market to Europe

Countries such as the UK and Germany could see benefit to their research bases, event hears

September 13, 2019
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Countries such as the UK and Germany could stand to strengthen their research bases as a result of US-China tensions by attracting more high-quality doctoral students, it has been suggested.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said there was potential “for the US-China” row “to turn into a substantial shift in the pattern of mobility out of China” in the coming years.

This could lead to a significant increase in the number of PhD students wanting to study in some European nations rather than in the US.

Professor Marginson was speaking at the launch of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual Education at a Glance report, which he noted showed just how important international doctoral education was to different nations’ research systems.

“I don’t think it is a coincidence that there’s a close relationship between the high level of internationalisation in doctoral education and a high-quality research system in terms of output and in terms of value for money,” he said.

Given the huge numbers of PhD students coming from China, this meant that long-term tensions with the US could have a profound impact.

“The most important thing happening in the world at the moment is the US-China relationship and how that is shifting. I think we’re in for decades of a quasi-Cold War type relationship,” he said.

For science, this could mean the “tremendous flow of students out of China and into the US doctoral education system and back to China again is going to radically reduce. And those students are going to go somewhere else.

“If they don’t go to the US, the two most likely places for them to go are probably the UK and Germany.”

However, despite this potential benefit for the UK, Brexit could undermine the country’s attractiveness for doctoral students if the country loses access to European research funding, Professor Marginson said. As a result, some “fast footwork at a policy level” would be required.

Professor Marginson said after the event that the reintroduction of two-year post-study work visas for international students would help in this regard, but that it was “not as crucial” for attracting and retaining PhD students as it was for other degree levels.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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