Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Is there a doctor in the country?

Fewer Aussies are undertaking PhD’s, leaving the spots to international students

AUSTRALIA has become heavily dependent on overseas students to tackle PhDs in the hard sciences as locals choose well-paid industry jobs over insecure careers in research, according to a new analysis.
Working with customised official data for 2002-08, Dr Birrell showed 142 per cent growth in PhD starts by onshore international students in the natural and physical sciences (357 more students in 2008 than in 2002), compared with 7 per cent for locals (80 more students).

In engineering and related technologies, locals were down by 19 per cent (116 fewer students) and overseas students up by 161 per cent (350 more). The strongest growth for locals was in creative arts, up 39 per cent, although the absolute numbers remain small (91 more). Dr Birrell said the weakness of local PhD starts during the past few years represented a sharp reversal after healthy growth from the late 1980s through to late 90s, when economic growth and job opportunities were patchy.
But in recent times, at least until the global financial crisis, students emerging with a bachelor’s degree in some sciences and engineering could choose between decent starting salaries in industry or poorly paid entry to an insecure career as a researcher.

The report focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, but in my own department of Business & Government, again there seems a 70/30 split of International Post-grad students over Domestic. That’s a problem when their knowledge, skills and training will leave the country upon completion, with Australia receiving only a very indirect benefit (since they pay their way and hopefully will retain & encourage good will in the region towards Australia)

It’s no surprise really, given that even if you are lucky enough to win an Australian Post-Graduate Award Scholarship, your income is effectively on the poverty line .

This is not a woe is me post, you undertake a PhD because you love the field, the lifestyle, and after graduation significantly better salaries are on offer, and I couldn’t ask for a better occupation right now. To its credit, the Rudd Government has raised the award slightly for 2010, with promised rises beyond that. But as much as money, the lack of interest by domestic students is also significantly cultural too. We no longer have a government which prefers people do hairdressing instead of PhD’s, but the current prime minister doesn’t seem too keen on them either (Rudd denied the accusations when asked some weeks back on the ABC’s insiders program, though made no effort to argue for PhD’s either). Australia likes to think of itself as the clever country, and vigorously supports university education for all and sundry. Yet when it comes to the highest level of education, there seems a sense people are bludging from life and wasting tax payer money.

Options such as giving residency to successful international postgrad students may help temporarily. However, the number one problem across Australian education is the lack of respect it has in the community. We see less people wanting to be teachers, vast cultural groups simply ignoring education as anything more than a mandatory duty till aged 18, and many talented and bright future researchers and university lecturers leaving for the quick money and respect of industry/overseas jobs. For once, the Australian government can make a big social and future economic prosperity change without spending a cent. It just needs the courage to return the role of education to its rightful place in society’s respect. That’s a goal fundamental to both conservative and liberal ideologies, it just needs a spokesman. That truly would be an education revolution.

Next post »

3 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Andrew – I really think respect is earned, not declared. School teaching has probably declined in respect, though not without cause as the average quality of teacher has dropped and their union has consistently behaved badly. However the number of people applying to become a teacher is fairly stable over time. The proportion of adults with educational qualifications has never been higher than it is today, suggesting that people see the worth of education.

    As for PhDs, universities are bad employers of young academics – making them study for long periods of time then stringing them along with casual jobs and short-term contracts. I pretty much agree with the NTEU (gasp!) that there is a serious problem with all this. The NTEU are also part of the problem in resisting teaching-only jobs. But in a private capacity, I advise anyone who wants a semi-normal middle class life – the financial capacity to take on a mortage and raise kids for example – against pursuing an academic life. If there is a decline in Australians taking on PhDs, it is a perfectly rational response to the dud deal on offer.

  2. Hi Andrew

    I would certainly agree that the field of education has not served its own cause well. The resistance to change in delivery, whilst making radical changes in content (from analyzing Shakespeare to TV clips to take an extreme example) has hurt the industry. However it is also true that we don’t seem to value the role of teachers as happened half a century ago, and as for much of western civilization. No one ought to go into teaching to be highly paid, but it should be seen as an honourable profession. Without that, many of the best minds will simply leave it to weaker ones (leading to a further decline in standards).

    The proportion of people with degrees is perhaps misleading as a university education is now essentially a requirement for any professional job, and a significantly easier opportunity to pursue today than a generation ago. We seem to be training a generation of young people without them significantly desiring it, or industry/the public service significantly gaining from it. The biggest benefit seems simply the higher maturity graduates may have once entering full time work.

    I agree with you about the problem of both entering academia along with the NTEU’s foolishness about teaching only jobs (though at my uni it’s also the reverse where they are resisting the demand for research). I somewhat fell into post-grad study, and while enjoying it, I am keen to try out a range of industries (especially on the policy side) as well, seeing academia perhaps as a fall back. And with luck in 5-10 years there will be full time spots a plenty with the retirement of the baby boomers on mass.

    Cheers for your comments.

  1. PhD not for locals in Australia « Beats and Pieces