Chapter 4:

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

International Comparison of Doctoral Degrees in S&E

The scale of doctoral programs has increased in several world regions, particularly Europe, Asia, and the Americas. This capacity building in doctoral S&E education is linked to national policies to develop an S&E infrastructure that more explicitly links universities to innovation and economic development. (See sidebar, "Graduate Reforms in Europe, Asia, and Latin America." at the end of this section.) By broad world region,[15] Western Europe produces more doctoral S&E degrees than North and South America (the Americas) and Asia. In 1997, doctoral degrees awarded in S&E fields by Western European institutions totaled 40,000—about one-fifth higher than the number of such degrees earned in the American region and more than twice as many as the number recorded for Asian countries. (See appendix table 4-27 and figure 4-18.)

Considering broad fields of science, the largest number of natural science doctorates are earned within Western European universities, while the largest number of social science doctorates are earned within universities in the Americas. In contrast, in engineering, each region produces about one-third of the doctoral-level degrees.

Trends in Doctoral Degrees—Europe and the United States top

By individual country, the United States has the highest number of doctoral degrees earned in S&E fields. In 1997, U.S. universities awarded about 27,000 S&E doctoral degrees—more than twice the number of S&E degrees awarded in any of the other major industrial countries. (See figure 4-19.) However, the combined doctoral S&E degrees of the three largest European countries (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) recently surpassed the number of U.S. earned degrees. (See figure 4-19.)

S&E doctoral degrees in Germany grew faster than non-S&E doctoral degrees between 1975 and 1997. The number of S&E degrees increased 4.3 percent annually, engineering increased 5.0 percent annually, and non-S&E doctoral degrees increased 2.8 percent annually during this 22-year period. (See appendix table 4-28.) France undertook a reform of doctoral studies in 1988 in an effort to double the number and improve the quality of S&E doctoral degrees awarded within eight years. The effort has largely succeeded: the number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in France increased from 5,000 in 1989 to 9,000 in 1997—more than an 83-percent increase (Government of France 1998a). In contrast to Germany, doctoral S&E degrees in the United Kingdom have not grown as fast as non-S&E doctoral degrees: S&E doctoral degrees grew 2.6 percent annually in the past two decades, while non-S&E fields grew 5.0 percent annually.

Trends in Doctoral Degrees—Asia top

The scale of graduate education in Japan has been small by international standards. Until recently, most doctorates in NS&E in Japan were earned by industrial researchers after many years of research within Japanese companies. Doctoral reforms of 1989 called for the expansion and strengthening of graduate schools and the establishment of a new type of university exclusively for graduate study. The government has sharply increased support to universities to improve facilities and accelerate doctoral programs in NS&E fields. In 1994, Japanese engineers earned more doctoral degrees for research within university laboratories than within industrial research laboratories—53 percent and 47 percent, respectively (NSF 1997).

Asian graduate education reforms are also strengthening and expanding doctoral programs in China, Taiwan, and South Korea. (See figure 4-20.) In 1997, S&E doctoral degrees earned within major Asian countries (China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) reached more than 18,000, representing a 12-percent average annual increase from 1993 to 1997. In contrast, such degrees earned by Asian students (from these five countries) within U.S. universities peaked at 6,900 in 1996 (representing less than a 5-percent average annual growth rate from 1993 to 1996) and declined in 1997. (See figure 4-21.)

China has invested heavily in graduate education to "embrace the era of knowledge economy" (Nature 1998). While still using the U.S. higher education system to absorb the rising demand for graduate education, Chinese universities have expanded graduate education to be able to absorb a larger proportion of the students seeking advanced S&E degrees. Although the number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by Chinese students within U.S. universities showed a decade-long increase until 1996, the number of such degrees earned within Chinese universities continues to increase, and at a faster rate. (See figure 4-22.) By 1997, Chinese students earned more than twice as many S&E doctorates within Chinese universities as within U.S. universities.

Other Asian countries are also increasing their capacity to provide S&E graduate education. In the 1980s, the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology was established to increase support for postgraduate training within the country. South Korean universities awarded almost 2,200 doctoral degrees in S&E in 1997, up from 945 such degrees in 1990. (See appendix table 4-29.) More recently, South Korea announced its plan, called "Brain Korea 21" to further strengthen graduate education in the natural sciences and provide university research funds for interdisciplinary programs such as biotechnology and materials science (Baker 1999).

Universities within five Asian countries are now producing more engineering doctorates than universities within the United States. The gap is even larger, since half of the U.S. degrees are earned by foreign students, the majority of whom are Asian. (See figure 4-23.)

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[15] This discussion of international comparisons presents data in terms of three world regions—Asia, Western Europe, and North America. The specific countries composing these regions are listed in appendix table 4-27.

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