Overseas students help boost Australian universities research profile
30 November 2011, by Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins
Frank Larkins is Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He is a former Deputy Vice Chancellor at that university, Dean of Science and Dean of Land and Food Resources. He has published more than 200 scientific papers. His current interests are in research, education and energy policy developments. He has recently published a book entitled Australian Higher Education Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP 2011).
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Research students are the cornerstone of research activities in many universities. Some 60 to 70 percent of all university research outputs are linked to contributions by students. The trends in Masters by Research and Doctorate by Research enrolments for domestic and overseas students are profiled in this article along with completion data. The main quantitative data used for the period 2000 to 2010 are sourced from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) website (1). The data that has been used are presented in Appendix 1. The student enrolment data used in this work are reported as person numbers and as Effective Full Time Student Load (EFTSL) equivalent to take account of part time candidature. In earlier articles, published by the L H Martin Institute, trends in Australia’s Higher Education Expenditure on Research and Experimental Development, the sources of funding for university research and the consequences for academic staffing have been considered (2).
Research Student Enrolment Trends
The total enrolment numbers for Masters and Doctoral students for the period 2000 to 2010 are presented in Appendix 1 and Figure 1. Total Higher Degree Research (HDR) enrolments have increased by 49 per cent during the period to 55,740 students, corresponding to a growth in doctorate enrolments of 68 per cent, but there has been an overall decline of eight per cent in Master student enrolments. These numbers have grown faster than the teaching and research (T&R) and research only (RO) numbers at 38 percent (Appendix 1 and reference 2), but the ratio of HDR students to T&R+RO staff numbers is a healthy 1.2:1.0.
The composition of the HDR student cohort between domestic and overseas students has changed significantly. While domestic Masters student enrolments declined by 15 percent during the period under examination, overseas Masters grew by 64 per cent. At the Doctoral level domestic enrolments grew by 38 per cent, while overseas student enrolments grew by a remarkable 275 per cent.
Figure 1: Enrolment trends in Masters by Research and Doctorate by Research Students numbers from 2000 to 2010.
The percentage change in overseas to domestic student numbers is illustrated in figure 2. In 2010 there was one overseas Masters student for every five domestic students, whereas a decade earlier there was one overseas Masters student for ten domestic students. Similarly, at the doctoral level the ratio has increased from one overseas student to seven domestic students in 2000 to one overseas to 2.5 domestic students in 2010. These figures underline how much the HDR profile in Australian universities has change in the past decade. The contribution of Australian universities to Australia’s research effort is now very dependent of overseas students with about one in every six Masters students and one in every 3.5 doctorate students coming from overseas.
Figure 2: Percentage of Overseas students enrolled in Masters by Research and Doctorate by Research compared to Domestic student enrolments (by numbers).
If one considers the trends on an EFTSL basis then it is evident from the data presented in figure 3 that Australian university research is even more dependent on the contribution from overseas students. The fact that the EFTSL-based percentages for overseas students shown in figure 3 are higher than the corresponding number-based percentages in figure 2 indicates that proportionally more of the domestic students are enrolled on a part-time basis. One in five EFTSL Masters and one in three EFTSL doctoral students are from overseas.
Figure 3: Percentage of Overseas students enrolled in Masters by Research and Doctorate by Research compared to Domestic student enrolments (by EFTSL).
Higher Degree Research Completions
The number of overseas students completing in each of the years as a percentage of the total completions for Masters, doctorates and overall is shown in figure 4. The proportion is very similar for both the Masters and the doctorate degrees indicating a consistent outcome performance between the two research degrees for all years. Relative to domestic completions the number of overseas students successfully completing has increased each year. Given the time delays between enrolments and completions further increases in the proportion of overseas HDR graduates in the future are to be expected. This will be especially so at the doctoral level. The contributing factors are the increased overseas enrolments and because a higher proportion of the overseas students are full time researchers compared with domestic students. There is insufficient data available to draw any conclusions about completion rates.
Figure 4: Percentage of overseas student completions by degree and total higher degree research numbers.
For domestic and overseas students, Masters completions are a declining proportion of all the completions having almost halved in the period under examination. These data are presented in figure 5. There is a consistent pattern for the completion performance of both domestic and overseas students.
Figure 5: Percentage completions of Masters to Doctorate students for domestic, overseas, and total enrollees.
Trends consequences for universities
Overseas students now make a greater contribution to the research output of Australian universities than a decade earlier. There has been a trend towards a higher proportion of HDR enrolees coming from overseas and for more domestic HDR students to enrol part time compared with their overseas counterparts. Overseas students continue to contribute an ever higher proportion of HDR completions. When European countries and the USA overcome their current financial difficulties they will again increase their R&D investments. Australia’s research effort will be at risk if more overseas students that may have come to Australia are recruited by other countries. It is in the national interest to develop policy incentives to recruit and retain overseas research students and also to attract more domestic students to priority HDR programs.
1. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relation, http://www.deewr.gov.au/highereducation/Publications/HEStatistics/Publications/Pages/Home.aspx
2. Frank Larkins, L H Martin Institute articles, 2011, http://www.lhmartininstitute.edu.au/insights-blog/26-professor-emeritus-frank-larkins
Masters and Doctorate by Research Student Enrolments and Completions 2000–2010 (two-year intervals)