In ”The Disposable Academic”, The Economist argued that "doing a PhD” was often a waste of time. However, this pessimism does not reflect the experience of all students, as evidenced by increasing numbers of doctoral students from the global South heading to the advanced economies of the North in the past 20 years.
Two primary factors influence mobility and stay rates of international doctoral students: the comparative access to opportunities for doctoral training and professional advancement between their host and home countries.
How is the mobility of international students at doctoral level likely to shift in the next 20 years? It will be shaped by the collision of two counter-trends enabling and limiting mobility.
The expansion of undergraduate-level higher education in developing countries is increasing the supply of students who qualify for and aspire to a doctoral education. This will continue to fuel the mobility of foreign students seeking doctoral education abroad.
Concurrently, as the quality of the higher education system in the source countries improves, outward mobility may become more limited, as the differences in quality between domestic universities and foreign ones narrow.
Likewise, in terms of stay rate, two counter-trends will be at work. Students who go abroad to earn doctoral degrees may not stay to work because of the improving opportunities for economic reward and professional advancement in their home countries.
Simultaneously, the proactive immigration policies of host countries, devised to encourage talent retention, may effectively implore international students to remain.
Overall, this complex interplay of counter-trends will shape the future mobility of international students seeking doctoral education.
Based on the limited success of developing countries in instigating meaningful reforms in their higher education sectors, it is safe to predict that doctoral talent mobility will continue to be strong with high stay rates, especially in STEM-related fields.
Key source countries have to work harder and smarter to retain talent and provide competitive opportunities for developing and engaging talent, as Brazil does with Science Without Borders or Chile does with Becas.
Doctoral talent mobility will continue to reflect the reality of an interconnected, globalised world where individuals and nations try to maximise their growth and competitiveness.
The key is not to frame global talent mobility as a zero-sum game and that applies to doctoral talent too. After all, the academic is not yet disposable, not least the globally mobile ones of tomorrow.
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