As key sites of learning for students in increasingly mobile education landscapes, universities and similar higher education institutions have a complex role. They are hubs where knowledge is produced, transmitted, and stored according to historically developed, somewhat rigid epistemological and physical structures, corresponding with separate disciplines. However, they must also remain flexible to accommodate evolving fields of inquiry and societal needs [1
]. As brick-and-mortar institutions, higher education institutions are still very much place-based, with certain geographic areas developing reputations for “excellence” that are deployed to attract mobile students in line with current “commodified” understandings of higher education.
Educational research, for its part, has gradually moved away from its initial place-based bias—reflected in studies of classrooms or campuses—to embrace wider spatial concepts and issues of mobility, enabling analysis of education and learning according to broader, decentered understandings [2
]. In this new scholarly debate, authors emphasize the interconnectedness and spatial relations of mobile knowledge. Higher education institutions are seen as interconnected via mobile norms, values, curricula, educational policies, and especially students—evidenced particularly by international students visiting and travelling from one institution to the next [4
International student mobility (ISM) has increased markedly in recent decades. According to UNESCO, nearly all countries have recorded a rise—some even experiencing a doubling or tripling of international students in the last decade [5
]. Most ISM research fails to give students themselves a voice or an opportunity for self-reflection [7
], with a few notable exceptions (e.g., see [10
]). This is a missed opportunity: ISM is worth exploring not only because of its contribution to the reputations of higher education institutions and professional programs, but also because of how it is shaping knowledge systems through the experiences and career decisions of individual students [13
By listening to the voices of mobile students, the present article addresses this first gap to better understand what PhD graduates’ experience of mobility entails beyond career implications and whether they are being sufficiently equipped to respond to changing societal needs locally and globally. For example, how do programs address the urgent, internationally negotiated goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which require scientists to engage more strongly and assume responsibilities beyond generating data [14
]? How do they respond to the call for research that does more than conduct ostensibly “value-free” studies [15
]? Such questions are particularly relevant when focusing on doctoral (PhD) degree programs, as students who complete them typically face major decisions about continuing in academia or seeking senior positions elsewhere.
Higher education institutions can no longer afford narrow assumptions about employability or requisite skills. Today’s global challenges [16
] such as climate change or inequality require long-term, globally oriented programs that train PhD candidates and future leaders to address global challenges with a critical mind. These programs must also help to build evidence-informed consensus and develop solution-oriented approaches, particularly by cooperating closely with stakeholders from outside academia [17
]. Proponents of education for sustainable development (ESD) increasingly emphasize the need for tertiary education focused on development of specific competences including skills in systems thinking, anticipatory methods, normative issues, strategic approaches, and interpersonally [21
] as well as the application of sustainability knowledge in future job settings [22
]. Aside from knowledge and competences, ESD also requires helping students develop relevant attitudes [23
] and the ability to incorporate values in scholarly work [24
]. To develop attitudes and values enabling them to address real-world sustainability issues, students need a “safe space” where they can experience the emotional learning edge that triggers transformative learning moments [25
] through disruptive learning [27
However, the dominant understandings of science largely remain structured along disciplinary lines, despite increasing numbers of inter- and transdisciplinary research centers. Academic disciplines strive to obtain or defend their own privileged position in the research landscape, often trapping themselves in “silo thinking” [29
]. Prevailing teaching formats and curricula largely reproduce this disciplinary approach. In academia, especially at the PhD level or above, disciplinary specialization is emphasized and “outputs” like peer-reviewed articles enable individual scientists to advance their careers, while enabling their “home” institutions to improve their international rankings.
Overall, attitudes of competition (e.g., between researchers, disciplines, and institutions) continue to dominate knowledge-production processes in science. One especially unfortunate consequence of this is the reproduction of global inequalities between countries of the global North and South [30
]. Historical divides between former colonial powers and occupied countries, for example, now arguably show up as resource divides—not least of all in their scientific capacities. In particular, the distribution of researchers across the world is highly uneven: according to recent figures, low-income countries average only 66 researchers per million inhabitants, 50 times fewer than OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries [6
]; and all low-income countries combined account for as little as 0.3% of global research spending [14
]. This low researcher density, combined with limited scientific tradition and inadequate access to established research communities and journals, seriously hampers low-income countries in their academic development and continues to drive many talented young students from the global South to study abroad.
Although Switzerland is a globally connected country in terms of student mobility and higher education, it has only recently become the focus of ISM research [32
]. Against this background, the present article addresses the second gap of disciplinary thinking and marketized higher education impeding proper sustainability orientation of universities and ISM by examining a unique survey of PhD alumni from around the globe who participated in a 12-year North–South research partnership program funded by Swiss donors, known as the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North–South. Participants were trained in an intercultural, interdisciplinary setting with a focus on science for sustainable development [34
]. The program sought to reduce North–South science inequality while advancing research to tackle societal problems according to a combined disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approach. Participants pursued a disciplinary PhD but also received a supplementary degree in recognition of their research focus on sustainable development. Altogether, 222 PhD candidates from around the world received training through the program, also giving rise to a unique student population sample for this research. Most of the students from the global South and North were officially enrolled at a home-country university, but had the chance to meet and collaborate with fellow PhD candidates from other countries and disciplines during program fieldwork, training, and conferences. In the present article, we take a particular look at the program’s annual “summer school”, which enabled PhD students to discuss and interact beyond their disciplinary boundaries in challenging real-world contexts.
This article seeks to analyze how the NCCR North–South program enabled PhD researchers to advance their academic careers and simultaneously afforded them innovative learning opportunities on behalf of sustainable development. It draws on two alumni tracking surveys and follow-up interviews designed to access the students’ individual mobility experience, trace their career pathways, and understand how alumni perceived their ability to tackle sustainability issues in their research. We focused on the following two questions:
How did students perceive the training setting of the program, and did it support them in their desire to address today’s global challenges?
How did the alumni benefit from an inter- and transdisciplinary North–South research network in terms of their career path and future work?
Specifically, the present research examined the career pathways of 78 PhD alumni according to a mixed-methods approach, with a view to determining where these PhD alumni stood at the time of the survey. The qualitative research portion used semi-structured interviews to give the PhD alumni a voice; it particularly investigated how students experienced learning spaces designed to disrupt disciplinary expectations during their PhD training. The literature review that follows in the next section places the present study in a framework combining several spheres of interest: ISM studies, inquiries into education inequalities, studies on the role of science for sustainable development, and reflections on spaces for transformative learning. This review was conducted by the authors individually, in their specific areas of expertise, and results were shared in several writing workshops to consolidate the analytical framework for this paper.
5. Conclusions and Recommendations
In the present article, international student mobility (ISM) provided an entry point for understanding the journey of young researchers training for integration into a life of work and, simultaneously, in our sample, to join an international community of practice dedicated to striving for greater sustainability. Against the backdrop of ISM studies, reflections on global knowledge systems, inquiries into the inequalities of tertiary education, studies on the role of science for sustainable development, and reflections on spaces for transformative learning, we examined the perceptions of PhD graduates of the 12-year NCCR North–South program and analyzed the pathways of alumni through this training setting to address current global challenges. Offering students an opportunity to conduct research for sustainable development and earn a PhD, the program was explicitly designed to address fundamental inequalities in the science landscape. Indeed, higher education institutions, in this case universities, provide a legal and infrastructural framework for tertiary education, but unfortunately also provide a basis for unequal career trajectories that isolate countries of the global South and enable Northern (Western) universities to reinforce their privileged position. Furthermore, universities remain organized in disciplines that provide individual careers with clear academic identities, but constrain options for systemic perspectives urgently needed to address global challenges.
The purpose of an alumni tracer study is usually to understand how individuals have benefited (or not) from a university degree in terms of their employability. In our understanding, a tracer study can do much more. It can provide indications regarding the personal growth of students, enable insights into their understanding of the purpose of their career, and illuminate their ongoing negotiation of identity.
Two alumni tracking surveys conducted in 2012 and 2017 provided the basis for the present research, complemented by several in-depth qualitative interviews. The quantitative results indicate a high degree of mobility among students during the fieldwork phase of their research, followed by two-thirds of students settling back in their country of origin following graduation. Very few students moved from the global South to the global North. Additionally, the results from both surveys showed that PhD degrees provide a major career boost for graduates in the global South. Furthermore, the data showed that graduates from the global South successfully obtained leading positions irrespective of whether they submitted their PhD thesis at a Northern or Southern university. In this way, our results point to “brain circulation” rather than “brain drain”.
In the qualitative results, this “circulation” was further expressed in the students’ statements about the important role of friendship, new networks they forged, collaboration, and a spirit of sharing. Furthermore, they valued the exchange they experienced with scientists from different disciplines as well as non-academic stakeholders.
A key learning space experienced by students was the annual summer school with its intercultural, inter-, and transdisciplinary setting, a Third Space in which students were able to develop hybrid and relational identities in a North–South research context devoted to addressing sustainability issues. Students from diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds were brought together in a sharing environment—or safe space—characterized by peer learning, open learning, challenges, risks, new experiences, and a focus on inter- and transdisciplinary research for sustainable development. On the one hand, it enabled students to test new approaches and scientific perspectives, step out of their individual comfort zone, and experience disruptive learning. This demanded openness and trust to confront uncertainty and address epistemological and power issues inherent in efforts to address sustainability in a North–South context. On the other hand, course experiences as well as the overall NCCR North–South research program, triggered a sense of liminality and rootlessness in some students, while also providing a feeling of creative possibility and ethical purpose in research. To challenge yourself and dive into this state of liminality can typically trigger transformative learning moments where students take a chance to experience a learning edge and reconsider their mindsets, provided the space made available for this experience is shaped as a safe space. In our view, such safe spaces for transformative learning are needed to tackle today’s global challenges.
But how can universities transform their structures and international relations to create more of these learning spaces and enable research and teaching on behalf of sustainable development? Putting this into practice would require many Northern (Western) universities to lay down their privileges in the fundamental manner suggested by Spivak, who writes of unlearning one’s privileges [93
]. Moreover, a focus on collaboration instead of competition is urgently needed, also transforming power relations. Finally, a rethinking of research settings and career pathways is needed, for example, by officially recognizing and accrediting research visits and degrees from all over the world, in order to overcome postcolonial structures in academia [94
]. From the perspective of educational and research policymaking, recommendations based on our insights are the following:
Educational programs should…
… provide safe and innovative learning spaces where students can reflect on their mindsets and values, confront power issues inherent to research for sustainable development, and experiment new ideas to tackle today’s challenges;
… bring together students from different parts of the world and different disciplines and make them work with non-academic stakeholders (inter- and transdisciplinarity);
… appropriately acknowledge exchange and capacity development programs as an integral part of PhD education and provide certificates for inter- and transdisciplinary work;
… provide learning opportunities for trainers to create an adequately safe and creative learning environment;
… support universities in the global South and North willing to adapt their curricula, in order to provide PhD degrees that will make a difference in the local and global context;
… and promote and enable network building.
ISM-based research should…
… conduct more systematic research on North–South and South–South movement;
… focus on the content and aim of programs and their impact on alumni’s expected career pathways in sustainable development;
… and gather more alumni data including type of subjects, experience with spaces for learning, diversity of steps into the labor market (including academic careers starting with PhD programs), potential remaining links to home university, who stays abroad and who returns.