Foreign PhD students are worth it

A new study tracking international PhD students has been able to measure their value to the country - and the results are good news, writes the University of Auckland's International Director Brett Berquist 

For more than a decade New Zealand has sought to attract top level international students to study here – with the expectation that some will stay to build our research and to work in companies and organisations to lift their expertise, growth and success.

We know some of these students do stay; they get jobs, establish families and become permanent residents and citizens. Others return home. But just how many stay and how many leave has never been fully understood. And it’s important to know because New Zealand is investing in these students to add to our pool of skilled and talented workers.

Since 2005, international PhD students have studied in New Zealand paying the same fees as domestic students. This fees policy was designed to attract international students who could support and grow New Zealand’s research community.

The programme has been extremely successful. Since 2005 the number of international PhD students has climbed to make up 45 percent of all PhD students. In 2015, 4065 international PhD students studied here. The fees policy has allowed us to essentially double the size of our PhD talent pool. We have done this in a highly competitive international market for these top end students, so much so that we have had the strongest growth in international PhD students among OECD countries.

The Ministry of Education’s recently released Moving Places research takes an in-depth look at international students studying in New Zealand. It is able to do this using Statistics NZ’s Integrated Data Infrastructure to access five different types of government data to build a deeper understanding of life after graduation for all international students who studied here between 2003 and 2011.

The research is groundbreaking due to the quantity and quality of the data it uses. Tax data, benefit data, visa information, census data and education data gathered from tertiary institutions is used to determine what 132,415 students did once they finished their studies here. The scale and depth of this research is remarkable and will be of interest to the global international education sector.

The Moving Places research found that 40 percent of international PhD students of all ages stayed in New Zealand for their first year after graduating. Five years after completing their PhD, 25 percent remained in New Zealand. This is right in line with the OECD average for all international students: a quarter stay for at least five years after completing their studies.

The value of the international PhD graduates to New Zealand is reflected in their incomes, which Moving Places describes as “very good compared to other graduates”. International PhD graduates working in the areas of management and commerce, engineering and related technologies, and in information technology, had the highest incomes, two years after completing their doctorate.

The international PhD graduates who leave New Zealand are not lost to us. They inform international rankings and also become intrinsic to our international research networks and global connectedness, all of which underpins a strong 21st century economy.

When combined with the significant numbers of our domestic graduates travelling overseas for study and work, the data paints a picture of a vibrant, mobile ecosystem of researchers. In all, 77 percent of New Zealand researchers spend a portion of their career overseas. We know from many studies that research publications with international collaboration have a higher impact through greater citations by other researchers. This is one of the key pillars of innovation.

The investment in the international PhD students, estimated in 2017 to be $40m – virtually the equivalent subsidy for domestic PhDs – can be seen in significant increases in the scale and quality of the country’s research outputs. These students support research particularly in the areas of natural and physical sciences, engineering and related technologies.

The return on investment is also reflected in the global rankings of all New Zealand universities – all eight universities have improved their positions despite massive investment in their own universities by countries such as China.

The Moving Places research has limited its study of these high value students, confining most of its findings to PhD graduates under the age of 30 – which means most are excluded. We urge the Ministry of Education to further examine the data it has to fully understand the direct and indirect value of all international PhD students to New Zealand.

The research takes a more in-depth look at the wider international education sector for the 10-year period. Overall, 30 percent of all international students remain in New Zealand for five years after completing their study. This "stay rate" is on a par with Australia and exceeds the OECD average of 25 percent. It’s one measure of the sector’s success.

As we reflect on the findings of the Moving Places research it is also useful to consider local students. Many of them, once they have completed their studies, choose to leave the South Pacific and find work and experience around the world.

Students are typically mobile, and it is this quality in all of them that is of high value to businesses and organisations as they experience life, study and work in different communities and ultimately bring this cultural know-how home. The University of Auckland believes the exchange of knowledge, ideas and experience is so critical not only for our students but for NZ Inc., that it wants to lift the number of New Zealand students studying abroad. It aims, by 2020, to have one in four graduates undertake a learning experience overseas during their studies.

It is heartening to see an increasing awareness of the importance of international education and exchange to our country’s economic, social and cultural success.

*The international education sector is New Zealand’s fourth largest export and well on course to meet the Government’s target to be worth $5b by 2025.

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