Australian Researchers’ Mobility Portal

Wednesday 1st July 2009

Students from Arab countries, and not from China, make up the biggest proportion of people from a region or country studying abroad - and if one is searching for a winner in north-south research initiatives, look no further than Brazil. Those are two interesting surprises revealed by a study undertaken for the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge.

Overviews of student mobility frequently point out that most foreign students are citizens of China and India, write Ulrich Teichler1 and Yasemin Yağci2 (pictured) in a Forum Research Report chapter, “Changing Challenges of Academic Work: Concepts and observations”.

“Such an emphasis on absolute data does not take into account the extent of study abroad, that is, the proportion of students from certain countries studying abroad or the proportion of foreign students among all students in a given country.”

Teichler and Yağci highlight negative and positive effects of increased mobility and internationalisation on high-income countries as well as those categorised as low- and middle-income.

Changes in mobility have been sweeping. The numbers of students studying abroad has catapulted from less than 200,000 in the early 1950s to more than two million in recent statistics - although, the authors point out, this is due mostly to an overall rise in enrolments, with the percentage of students abroad remaining at a constant 2%.

Data has been one of the key stumbling blocks in tracking worldwide trends on academic travel, especially scholars. But the authors were able to share several findings:

  • The percentage of students from all Arab countries studying abroad was more than five times that of Chinese students studying abroad in 1999.
  • Australia, Canada and Switzerland have a relatively higher influx of highly-skilled people from abroad than do France, Germany, the UK and the United States.
  • Indians make up the largest group of highly-skilled ex-patriates working in economically advanced countries, at about one million, with the Chinese second at 700,000. But the proportions of South African, Russian and Brazilian highly qualified people (of all the migrating citizens of those countries) was higher than for Indian and Chinese migrants.

Teichler and Yağci pin some of the blame for brain drain on the countries that suffer the skills-flight: “Consensus emerged that many low- and middle-income countries could do much more to make conditions attractive for their own research talent”. Poor working conditions and low salaries lead many talented researchers to find greener pastures.

The authors note that better retention would result if efforts were made to secure appropriate remuneration, alleviating conditions that force many scholars in low- and middle-income countries to ‘moonlight’ to make a living. More academic freedom, less bureaucracy and less isolation would also help reverse brain drain.

The authors point out that there have been some countries that have been successful at tapping the diaspora of experts from their country all over the world, and others have been able to go further and find incentives to repatriate highly skilled former nationals.

Like mobility, internationalisation and globalisation have also changed the global higher education landscape.

Investment in research has increased in economically advanced countries. Nations are setting their national education policies with one eye on the world, many national research policies have been deregulated and de-nationalised, and many countries now use more economic utility arguments for their research.

Recent trends provide opportunities for low- and middle-income countries to get easier access to, and participate in, high quality knowledge production, and there have been improvements in study programmes and research and activities. But there are also risks involved, and failures.

According to Teichler and Yağci: “Investments in higher education and research are so impressive in many economically advanced countries that other countries hardly have any chance of catching up.” Also, investments by industry in research and development are largely concentrated on high-income countries.

Many low- and middle-income countries are unable to compete with the increased research expenditures of the industrialised world, or benefit from growing opportunities for access to high-quality knowledge. In Africa, research is often a donor-driven activity and little research is funded by governments.

Increased global competition in higher education and research, and related information systems on ‘world class universities’ and indicators of ‘cutting-edge’ research, are more likely to underscore gaps than motivate the less privileged to ‘catch up’, the authors say. Nevertheless, more investment is needed from low- and middle-income countries.

Findings of the Forum, they add, suggest that current trends are more likely to widen, or at least maintain, gaps in higher education and research between economically advanced countries and most low- and middle-income countries. For instance, sub-Saharan Africa’s world share of publications declined from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, and has since remained at that lower constant.

“Targeted measures were called for in order to improve actual developments in low- and middle-income countries, increase the likelihood of quality improvements, and serve their specific needs better than in the past.”

Transnational education, where branch campuses or private-sector providers from other countries set up shop, came in for a lot of criticism from the Forum. Although it can increase university-level enrolment in some countries, there can be numerous risks - including low quality and exploitation in many cases, the often limited ability of host countries to review programme quality, and fears that it erodes national public systems.

“The programme goals of transnational education programmes and the paradigms of research might be so driven by the perspectives of economically advanced countries that the needs of low- and middle-income countries are neglected or even suppressed,” write Teichler and Yağci.

There are some globalisation good-news stories. Statistics suggest that north-south cooperation is important to less developed countries. Forum research has revealed that Brazilian universities undertook almost 300 joint research projects with France, Germany and Spain, alone. And at Arab universities and research institutes in 1995, almost 40% of major publications were produced with authors from mostly advanced countries.

While globalisation has been a force that has made many smaller countries throw their hands up at being unable to compete with large research groups and the mass-marketing of education, the authors point to the power of regional cooperation in gaining a footing in research quality and relevance.

One example is the University of the West Indies, with a grouping of small countries able to build strong campuses through regional cooperation. Teichler and Yağci ask why Arab states, with their common research needs — for instance for water management, oil and gas technology — cannot build better regional cooperation. They call for other countries to also look at regional cooperation as a way to narrow global research gaps.

1 Professor Ulrich Teichler is immediate past Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel in Germany. He has published more than 1,000 academic publications, especially on higher education and the world of work, international comparisons of higher education systems, and international cooperation and mobility in higher education.

2 Yasemin Yağci is a PhD student and research assistant in the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel in Germany.