Research at risk from student mobility disruption, warns OECD

Latest Education at a Glance 2020  report says that  disruption to international student recruitment from the coronavirus pandemic could have a major impact on research and innovation in some countries for years to come, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has warned.

In its annual report comparing education performance among its members, the group points out that one in five doctoral students in OECD countries comes from abroad, with the share exceeding 40 per cent in nations such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK.

A downturn in PhD recruitment therefore “risks affecting productivity in advanced sectors” of some OECD nations, in addition to the potential hit to university income in countries where high fees are charged to overseas students.

Report says the crisis had “exposed the value proposition of universities” because internationally mobile students often chose to travel for the in-person benefits they would gain, such as networking and access to job opportunities, something not easily replaceable by online education.

“Students are unlikely to commit large amounts of time and money to consume online content. Students go to universities to meet great people, have inspiring conversations with faculty, collaborate with researchers in the laboratory and experience the social life on campus,” the report says.

As a result, universities in the OECD faced a drop in demand due to the pandemic with “severe repercussions” for the “funding model of some higher education institutions where international students pay higher tuition fees”.

But, report adds, “the financial losses are not limited to higher education institutions. Countries have traditionally relied on international student mobility to facilitate the immigration of foreign talent and contribute to both knowledge production and innovation nationally.

“Indeed, international student mobility is particularly high for doctoral programmes, where one in five students comes from abroad on average across OECD countries. A decline in international student mobility in these countries risks affecting productivity in advanced sectors related to innovation and research in the coming years.”

One exception in Europe, according to the data, could be Germany where just 12 per cent of doctoral students were from outside the country in 2018, one of the lowest figures in Europe and well below the OECD overall figure of 22 per cent.

In the long run, those countries that do best in attracting the best and brightest from all over the world will drive innovation.