Dean Forbes



Presentation to a session on

Research Student Mobility and International Research Links

European Association for International Education

Trondheim, 12-15 September 2007

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University


I have been interested in research student mobility for some time.  I started to draft this paper a few months ago.  Much of it was written while on holidays, participating in my eldest daughters wedding in Jamaica in August.  The wedding had to be brought forward 24 hours, due to a hurricane passing through the Caribbean.  The newspaper headlines referring to the category five hurricane announced ‘Dean causes havoc in Jamaica’.  Friends and colleagues in Australia and Jamaica found it very amusing.

But putting the hurricane aside, I realized the topic I had chosen caused me to think about some very fundamental issues, well beyond the topic of my presentation.  They included questions about how research is organized in universities, how we adapt to the emergence of Web 2.0, and the kind of global knowledge economy are we going to have in coming years.

In other words, it went well beyond a pragmatic look at how universities build their research student mobility options and strategies.  The result is my argument is far less cohesive than intended. 


Higher degree research students, especially PhD students, generally have fewer options to build international links or engage in student mobility programs than undergraduate or postgraduate coursework students.  I believe we need to spend more time considering the special needs of research students, and how we can increase their international mobility options.

Across the world, universities are under increased pressure to improve their research performance.  Governments, and universities, expect greater returns from their investments.  The emergence of credible global rankings of university research performance, such as the Shanghai Jiaotong World Universities Rankings, make increasingly clear the significance of research to prestige and status.  Research students are an important part of this.

Therefore, I address three linked questions.  First, how can we increase postgraduate research student mobility and hence create opportunities for developing new research links.  Second, how can we use international research links to promote the international mobility of research students?  Third, what do university managers, and in particular international offices, need to do to facilitate these processes?

In other words, how do we go about enhancing the symbiotic relationship between research collaboration and research student mobility?


The starting point is the global knowledge economy (GKE), by which I mean an “economy in which the production, distribution, and use of knowledge is the main driver of growth, wealth creation and employment across all industries” (McKeon and Weir 2001 p 4).  Universities are key players in the GKE, though I am less convinced we always understand the full implications.

The last couple of years have seen a rush of research reports documenting the geographic shifts in the changing GKE order.  Most centre on the increasing research and development capacity of Asian countries, especially China and India.

In the USA, a recently released National Science Foundation (2007) report noted that since the mid 1990’s combined national investment in R&D in 10 Asian countries as a share of the total value of goods and services produced grew faster than in the USA or the European Union.  Moreover, by 2003 Asia’s R&D was 10% greater than the combined European total, and around about 80% of R&D in the USA.  China was the standout Asian contributor.

Other studies have reached somewhat similar conclusions.  In Australia, the Prime Ministers Science, Engineering and Innovation Council’s Working Group on Asia (2006) report focused on the implications of development in China and India for the Australian knowledge economy.

Leadbetter et al’s (2007) Atlas of Ideas focus concentrated on China, India and South Korea.  “The core and the periphery are being scrambled up” they say (p 12).  Despite the Lisbon strategy to make Europe a leader in the knowledge-based economy, the targets have not been met.

The themes encapsulated in these studies are primarily defensive.  How can the current global leaders in R&D retain their position?  There is, at best, an element that focuses on cooperation in R&D.  But altruism is not a significant presence in this debate.

Moreover, the studies collectively have mixed attitudes towards increasing global knowledge links.  Without canvassing issues in any depth they foster the possibility of a reversal of the recent trend towards increasing globalization (see Thirlwell 2007).  They  feed a growing desire to reverse aspects of globalization in an attempt to preserve the stranglehold of the West on the GKE.  These sentiments are particularly strong in the USA. 

Vital to the future shape of the GKE is the mobility of educated knowledge workers, especially university graduates.

The United States is a bellweather in terms of the mobility of tertiary educated S&E workers.  Foreign educated S&E workers in the US increased from 14.3% in 1990 to 22.7% in 2000.  The most significant growth was of Asian born S&E workers, who increased their share from 5.5% to 11.6%.  Chinese numbers increased from 1.2% to 3.1%, and Indians from 1.7%  to 4.9% (NSF Table 5, p 10).

Foreign born doctorate holders were a much larger proportion of the total number of doctorate holders in US S&E occupations.  Between 1990 and 2000 the foreign proportion had grown from 23.9% to 37.3%.  The Asian born increased their share from 10% to 19%, with Chinese and Indians the two largest groups (NSF Table 6, p12).


International research links develop between researchers in universities.  Most are driven by individual researchers and research groups, based on attendance at conferences and other forms of interaction, especially the internet. 

A recent study by Jonathan Adams et al (2007) for the UK Office of Science and Innovation focused on research collaboration through bibliometric data, such as joint authorship, citations etc.  Putting aside the complexities of defining and measuring collaboration, they drew some interesting conclusions by comparing output between 1996-2000 and 2001-05.:

•    The volume of international collaboration increased significantly.

•    The share of publications involving international collaboration increased noticeably.

•    The average impact of research publications that result from international collaboration is significantly higher than the overall average.

The ways in which research collaboration occurs is not static, of course.  They are changing along with the emergence of Web 2.0 activity, and we need to take this into account.  The growth of ‘wikinomics’ as a process of mass collaboration and peer production will have a particularly strong impact on research.  Tapscott and Williams (2007) identify four key wikinomics principles: openness; peering; sharing; acting globally. Inevitably the principles will continue to shape the way in which research is organized, particularly as the ICT technology to support forms of interaction both improves and becomes more widely accessible.


The global competition for high quality research students is intensifying.  There are at least four main drivers of this competition.

First, research students make a significant contribution to current R&D activities, either through their original contributions of IP, or through the support they provide to the overall research groups to which they belong.

Second, after graduation research students provide essential expertise for knowledge economies.  For example, Buderi and Huang’s (2006) book describes the significance of Microsoft Research Asia (MRA), the laboratory in Beijing that is at the centre of research and innovation in Microsoft, and the strenuous efforts of MRA to attract the best and brightest Chinese graduates.  Leadbetter (et al, 2007) gives other examples in India and South Korea.

Third, research students provide the next generation of academic and research staff in universities.  A recent report for Universities UK, titled Talent Wars, has gone into some depth in exploring future prospects in the recruitment of academic staff in universities.

Fourth, research students can help facilitate collaboration among research groups.  What I don’t yet know is whether these kinds of mobility arrangements have a systematic impact on student performance.  In other words, do research students get the same overall quality and impact benefits as academic researchers appear to get?

Summing up, research students provide a significant input into research activity. Bringing the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (or the ‘smartness of mobs’) to research is increasingly done through the internet.  However research student mobility, and the face-to-face interaction that results, should also be seen as an element of peer production. 

There is a long tradition of research students traveling internationally to undertake their research degrees.  Globally, private self-funded research students are a small proportion of the total.  Governments and international agencies play a much greater role through the sponsorship of research students. 

Increasingly government scholarship providers are expecting co-financing arrangements.  Governments will fund expenses including living costs, if universities or other agencies are prepared to reduce or waive fees.  This seems to be the trend with the Mexican scholarship programs and the Chinese government scholarship programs.  This kind of competition is likely to continue to increase.  It has implications for universities that cannot afford to subsidise graduate research students, in jurisdictions where governments are unwilling to share some of the cost burden.

Many Australian students have undertaken their postgraduate work in North America or Europe.  At the same time, the Australian government’s scholarship programs, now grouped under the Endeavour label, provide financial support to large numbers of students from the Asian Pacific region, and further abroad, to attend Australian universities to undertake PhDs. 

The mobility of research students within their degree programs is a more complex issue, but more central to my concerns.  Research student programs can be organised in a number of different ways to facilitate mobility.  For example:

•    Sandwich degrees, in which the student lives at home with local support, but spends periods of time at their university in another country. 

•    Double degrees, where students split their time between universities.

•    Cotutelle arrangements (which might take the form of joint or double degrees).

Schemes such as the cotutelle are designed to foster research student mobility, and encourage international research cooperation.  From their origins with French government support, they have now become a frequent focus of discussion between universities.  However, the actual numbers of research students in cotutelle arrangements seems relatively small in proportion to the total.

An important question is how can bi-lateral university networks facilitate research links?  In my experience there is relatively little connection between undergraduate student exchange programs and research links.  Perhaps we need to try harder.  Or perhaps links established for student exchange should not be expected to achieve other goals they were not intended to.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) recently signed an agreement with the Group of Eight Australian universities to support travel and living expenses of collaborating researchers over the period 2008-2010.  The scheme specifically identifies early career researchers.

International multilateral university networks can also facilitate research links.  The International Network of Universities was established a few years back to facilitate student mobility.  My two colleagues at this session are both from INU universities, namely Malmo University in Sweden, and Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.  Research links have been added to the agenda.  A seminar in Kyoto in 2006 launched the initiative.  Another meeting is planned for Malmo next week extending the research agenda.  The challenge in my view is how can we use these for research students as well as early career researchers?

For the reasons discussed in the reports I mentioned earlier, governments have moved to facilitate the development of research links.  For example, the European Union and the Australian government have combined to provide support and opportunities in a number of ways.

The Forum for European-Australian Science and Technology Cooperation (FEAST) was established in 2002, and is based on the 1997 Joint Declaration on Relations Between Australia and the European Union.  It set out to address a perception that there were unnecessary barriers to Australian and European researchers building sustainable relationships and undertaking joint projects.  The focus is on assisting researchers through the provision of information, training and specific activities.  The mentoring of young, early career researchers is highlighted.  At its conference in December 2006 the development of the Australian Researchers’ Mobility Portal was announced.  It will connect into the European Mobility Portals (ERA-MORE) and beyond, and be aimed at improving links and the effectiveness of mobility. 

Australian Education International in Brussels is active in spreading information supportive of Australian-European research links.  The AEI science and education counselor network is established in several different locations. An important initiative has been the establishment European Union-Australian government grants, to support student mobility in coursework degrees from at least three European and at least three Australian universities.


To be effective, increasing research student mobility will require shifts in the way in which universities manage their activities.  We need to look at long-term strategies for communication within universities and between university staff and students and their peers.  The wikinomics agenda, peer production and the like will continue to demand more from the communications technology, and increase the stress on our administrations.  Currently silo-like organizational structures tend to prevail in universities.  In particular, the separation between activities of international offices and research offices will need to narrow.

How do we go about establishing close and productive international research links?  What kind of approach is best?  There is one significant pre-condition, and that is knowing the university’s research strengths.  The transparency this brings is important to both being able to identify areas of international research collaboration, and to providing meaningful mobility options for research students.

After a long and tortuous process, Flinders University narrowed its strengths down to 17 Areas of Strategic Research Investment (ASRI).  Promotional material has been made available.  The aim was to determine particular ASRIs to target in particular regions.  Eg pharmaceuticals research in Switzerland.  The ASRIs have in turn provided the basis for the identification of research collaboration possibilities with multilateral networks, such as the International Network of Universities, and in building bilateral research links.

Finally, I want to turn the focus to the role of international offices in research student mobility. In many universities student mobility initiatives, along with the recruitment of international fee-paying students, is traditionally managed by university international offices.  However, research activities are guided by individual researchers and research groups, and facilitated by offices of research.  There is often a separation between the two areas.  This means that most universities do not take advantage of the opportunities that are available.  We need therefore to think strategically about how to bring the international student and research areas closer together.

I believe we need to give more attention to how those of us who have international portfolios in universities, or work in international offices, can become more engaged in building international research links.  Some particular suggestions.

•    Know the extent of existing international research links within the institution.  Use survey instruments to collect information on international links, including research links.

•    Cost-effectively continuously improve the systems and capacity to understand existing research links.

•    Be familiar with such developments as the European Mobility Portals and the Australian Researchers Mobility Portal, and assist researchers to use these instruments.

•    Keep researchers informed of new and existing university links in case they can be used to support additional activities.

•    Provide information on international opportunities to research offices or, where that is not effective, to researchers and research groups directly.

•    Provide through the International Office, or lobby to provide, university funds to explore and develop strategic research collaborations.

Underpinning all this is the challenge of building a culture in the international office that integrates research goals into the fabric of the offices’ work. 


The point of my presentation is to argue we need to think more imaginatively about how we can improve the international mobility options of research students in our universities.  We need to achieve this without causing excessive fatigue among our staff, both academic and general.  And we need to ensure that this contributes both to the experience of the research student, and the overall strategic research collaborations of the university.  In an era of intensifying competition for the best research students, this provides a challenge for those of us committed to expanded international education.


Adams, Jonathan, Karen Gurney and Stuart Marshall 2007 Patterns of International Collaboration for the UK and Leading Partners (Summary Report), A report commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation by Evidence Ltd, Leeds.

Buderi, Robert and Gregory T. Huang 2006 Guanxi.  Microsoft, China and Bill Gates’ Plan to Win the Road Ahead, Random House Business Books, London.

FEAST Forum for European-Australian Science and Technology Cooperation <>

Forbes, Dean 2005 “Creating education cities in the new global knowledge economy”, South Australian Policy Online <>

Forbes, Dean and Cecile Cutler 2006 “The global knowledge economy, the university and the Southeast Asian city” in Wong Tai-chee and Brian Shaw (eds) Challenging Sustainability: Urban Development and Change in Southeast Asia, Marshall Cavendish Academic, Singapore, pp 175-196.

Hugo, Graeme, and Gour Dasvarma 2007 “Recent developments in Indian migration to Australia with special reference to academics”, International Conference on Cultural Diversity, Governance and Policy India-Australia, New Delhi.

Leadbetter, Charles, Simon O’Connor, James Wisdon, Kirsten Bound and Molly Webb 2007 The Atlas of Ideas: Europe and Asia in the New Geography of Science and Innovation, Demos, London.

McKeon, Rob, and Tony Weir 2001 “Preconditions for a knowledge-based economy” B-HERT News, No 11, pp 4-5.

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics 2007 Asia’s Rising Science and Technology Strength: Comparative Indicators for Asia, the European Union and the United States

Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams 2007 Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Penguin, New York.

Thirlwell, Mark 2007 Second Thoughts on Globalisation, Lowy Institute Paper 18, Longueville Media, Sydney.

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Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, Working Group on Asia 2006 Strengthening Australia’s Position in the New World Order, Canberra.