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Foreign doctorates are attractive – but don’t write off homegrown PhDs

Obtaining a foreign PhD is seen as attractive but data suggests local alternatives shouldn’t be dismissed.

Introducing more skilled employees into the economy is an important path to development for many middle income countries. That’s why increased and improved training at the top end of the education level – PhDs – is considered so vital.

Many countries encourage students to pursue their PhDs abroad in nations with well ranked universities, particularly in Europe and North America, on the presumption that what’s offered in the developed world is better quality. They know that some of those students won’t return after graduating, but take the risk since they believe those who do return will bring with them the necessary qualities for future growth.

But until now there’s been little concrete evidence that would allow one to judge whether this is an effective approach. Does encouraging students to obtain their PhDs elsewhere improve the quality or quantity of scientific output in their home country?

Our recent research sought to address this gap. In our study, we found that an individual who goes abroad to do a PhD and returns to his or her home country – South Africa in this case – has a more productive academic career than an individual who does his or her advanced schooling in South Africa.

There are at least two possible sources of advantage. First, it could simply be that better students are selected to enter foreign PhD programmes. If that’s the case, these people would have better careers regardless of their alma mater. Second, foreign programmes might provide superior training to those offered in South Africa. That would mean it’s the foreign aspect of the PhD that drives higher performance later in someone’s career.

The data we used in this study allowed us to separate the selection from the training effects, so we could identify the source of future performance.

What the data reveal

Our data were drawn from the National Research Foundation’s rating system of South African researchers. This gives most of the country’s research-oriented academics a grade that describes the quality and quantity of their research output. We then correlated this grade with individuals’ educational profiles.

Looking at those who returned to South Africa, we found that the quality of the institution from which academics received their PhD was correlated with future career success.

It is clear from our analysis that the globally top institutions, commonly perceived as offering the best training, exert a very strong selection and self-selection effect. The best students are attracted to and are found attractive by, top universities.

This is true even for foreign universities from the second or third tier. This effect seems to be driven by reputations of countries rather than of universities. Education scholar Simon Marginson has noted this trend, writing that “for the foreign graduates returning home to Thailand or Tajikistan, all reputable foreign degrees provide positional value”. “Foreign” does seem to be closely associated with “desirable”.

This suggests that those with the resources to make studying abroad possible, will see it as an attractive alternative to working towards a PhD at a domestic institution. But our findings don’t suggest a simple equation of foreignness with high quality.

The effectiveness of local universities

While foreign universities are perceived as attractive, there’s strong evidence that, all things being equal, leading South African universities provide “world class” training at the PhD level.

This is not a universal statement: it applies to a comparison of academics working in South Africa after the completion of their PhD either in South Africa or abroad. Despite that disclaimer, it’s a striking finding.

It has long been thought that the role of local universities in an emerging economy is essentially to train technicians or teachers rather than researchers pushing the knowledge frontier. As scholar Richard R. Nelson puts it:

Indigenous universities will play a key role as the source of students who take advanced training abroad, and as the home of faculty who have been trained abroad.

In other words, local universities have long been expected to produce functionaries, not to generate new knowledge or thinking. But our research suggests that local scholars are doing the kind of work that puts them among the top tiers.

This permits a certain cautious optimism about universities in emerging economies catching up with their “first world” counterparts. There are already very good local universities in developing economies. With policy support these could well produce research and training that are as good as any generated elsewhere.

Policy and possibility

Our results suggest there’s a valuable place for local universities in the development processes that emerging economies are trying to foster.

Investment in local science will indeed produce the good technicians and teachers as others have discussed. But there is more there: local universities can also provide advanced training that meets global standards, as well as producing frontier science.

And it’s useful to remember that while local students benefit from going abroad to obtain PhD degrees, not all foreign universities provide the same value.

This implies that a certain selectivity should be applied when policy makers are designing support structures for students who wish to study abroad. Our results suggests that the appropriate distinction is not between local and foreign universities – but rather a distinction drawn along the lines of the roles they play in their economies.

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