I am at a small research-planning workshop hosted by the University of Rwanda. The vice-chancellor is telling us, with evident pride, that his university’s research citations are the second highest in east Africa. However, he adds, a key problem is that only 23 per cent of his faculty hold doctorates. I am reminded of a remark I heard made a few years ago by the director of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, Tom Kariuki: that for the continent to achieve even the global average for the number of researchers per head of population, it will need to train 1 million new PhDs.
I look around. The room is full of intellectually hungry and talented young students who would all like an international PhD scholarship. They are here because they think that I can help them get one. But, with growing embarrassment, I realise that I will need to follow the vice-chancellor’s talk by highlighting some difficult facts.
Like many UK universities, mine is keen to strengthen international relationships, boost its global reputation and tackle global challenges. But it is also typical in charging international graduate students at least £18,000 a year, and in declining to waive a meaningful proportion of that sum.
Nor can international students tap into the UK government’s five-year, £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund. Even though capacity-strengthening in low- and middle-income countries is one of its major focuses, the fund's programmes generally do not cover international student fees.
There are Commonwealth postgraduate scholarships, of which about 370 are awarded annually to students from low- and middle-income countries. The modest number of applications means that the success rate is about 50 per cent, so the scheme is a good bet. But there are few other options.
This situation is good for nobody. Students from the developing world gain hugely from exposure to the rigours of top international research communities, and they undertake research that is often life-changing and impactful. But the benefit is not all one-way. A 2015 Cabinet Office review of the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme recognised that its £25 million a year investment promotes international development, enhances the reputation of UK universities, promotes the highest standards of intellectual achievement and builds international academic communities. All this projects British excellence abroad and bolsters the international reputation of the UK as a place for study, tourism and business.
Ten years ago, New Zealand recognised these benefits and lowered international fees to the same level as domestic fees. The University of Toronto recently did likewise. Yet UK institutions persist in the belief that if bright, highly motivated young minds from overseas cannot afford our exorbitant fees, we are better off without them.
For most institutions, this stance is absurd. The best students with money typically go to the very top universities – and why not? Meanwhile, the gifted students without money cannot come to excellent universities whose postgraduate communities they would greatly enhance – for a very modest marginal cost.
I wonder if funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission realise the leverage that they have. If they really want to promote international research partnerships, they could demand more international fee waivers as a condition of the investments in research and training from which Western universities benefit so much.
Universities could reduce costs further by developing sandwich programmes with counterparts in the developing world. As well as reducing costs, this would have the added advantage of retaining the brightest students in their home countries for, say, two years of their four-year programmes, helping them to research in areas that are relevant to them, and reducing the pressures imposed on them (and often their families) by being overseas for many years.
But let us avoid the tangled bureaucracy of endless bilateral agreements about how these programmes would work. Regional academies, such as the African Academy of Sciences, could endorse a single model that funders and universities could all sign up to.
Those Rwandan students I met think we are in this together, and we should be. UK universities understandably seek global access for their researchers, as well as a share of the funding, impact and presence that derives from addressing global research challenges. However, the highest quality research can be conducted only through fair and equitable partnerships. Capacity-strengthening through contributions to postgraduate training is a critical ingredient of such partnerships – and, indeed, our long-term relevance. We are not currently keeping our side of this deal.
For now, I take solace by counting success one human being at a time – recognising the profound importance, to both themselves and their societies more generally, of every developing world student who is helped to access a postgraduate education. However, I want to be able to follow the Rwandan vice-chancellor with a message of genuine hope and with practical solutions.
If our universities want to be truly global organisations and excel on the international stage, our leaders will need to better understand the reality of the world. Almost half the global population lives on less than $2.50 (£1.90) a day, and 80 per cent lives on less than $10 a day. Universities must look beyond their short-term business models and find a way to unlock this vast resource of talent, which is currently closed off both to themselves and to the developing world.
Daniel Haydon is director of the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine and the Glasgow Centre for International Development at the University of Glasgow.