The New Zealand skills deficit

By Shaun Hendy 16/10/2009 15

NZ PhD In 2006, 640 students  graduated with PhDs at New Zealand universities, compared to only 400 in 1998.

The graph on the right shows how this growth in student numbers has been shared among the disciplines. While the number of graduates in science and applied science has grown modestly, most of the growth has come from outside of the sciences. For instance, in Business and Commerce, the number of PhD graduates has nearly tripled over this period.

Science PhDs If we break down the sciences and applied sciences further, we can see that the number of biological and medical science graduates has grown strongly since 1998. This may be due to the considerable investment in biotechnology research and development made by the New Economy Research Fund (NERF) since 1999. However, the decline in physical sciences PhD graduates since 1998 is alarming. (Although I do know that in the MacDiarmid Institute, our numbers are growing:  we currently have more than 140 PhD students enrolled.) The relatively static numbers in engineering and the agricultural sciences should also be a concern.

Nokia human capital demandHow important are graduates to an economy? In an earlier post, I discussed the network of inventors that can be identified through the patent portfolio of Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia. The plot on the right shows the number of new inventors that appeared in Nokia’s patent record each year. In 2002, more than 300 new inventors appear in Nokia’s patent record. For comparison I’ve included the number of engineering PhDs graduating per year from Finnish universities. These started growing in the early 90s in advance of the strong demand by Nokia. It seems that these graduates must have played a key role in Nokia’s success. In 2006, the Finns graduated more than 300 PhDs in engineering compared to New Zealand’s 51.

Although the increasing numbers of New Zealand PhD graduates in the biological sciences is encouraging, a scan of the 2008 TIN100 report shows that few of the top 100 technology companies in New Zealand are based on biotechnology. In fact New Zealand’s manufacturing industry today is based heavily on engineering and ICT. Is this industry being held back by New Zealand’s skills deficit in physical sciences and engineering, or does this simply reflect a lack of appetite for research and development in our manufacturing sector?

15 Responses to “The New Zealand skills deficit”

  • While philosophically I think it would be great for more people to have science PhD’s in New Zealand, one does have to ask if they would find employment. I know fellow PhD students who have switched to other careers because they couldn’t find research related jobs. Under the current government I suspect the money spent on science is likely to be cut back or to stagnate. I was speaking to someone who works with schools and it looks like they will no longer be funding science advisors to work with primary teachers to encourage science in primary schools.
    If we want more science PhD’s we should also be pushing for a stronger research culture in industry and elsewhere.

  • You make a very good point drmike. One of the interesting things we’ve noticed about the MacDiarmid Institute’s current cohort of PhD students is that many of them do not intend to continue in academic research. A large group of them want to start businesses or work in industry. Aaron Small (one of the other bloggers on sciblogs) is a recent graduate from VUW who is doing both. The more students like Aaron that we can train and retain in New Zealand, the stronger our research culture will become.

  • […] One session of the meeting was a talk from Basil Sharp, a University of Auckland economist who mused on why New Zealand’s patenting rate was so low when its number of researchers was so high.  (He suggested ‘market failure’, but if you read this blog you will know that many of our ‘researchers’ are not scientists or engineers.)  […]

  • The sudden decline in the number of patents at Nokia post 2002-ish is curious. It certainly doesn’t follow the pattern of increasing numbers of engineering PhD graduates. Any ideas about this? A saturation level in the numbers of engineers? Enrollements at such a high level that academic standards start to slip? Or did Nokia pick all the low-hanging patents by 2002, requiring only a small number per year to stay abreast of current mobile phone technology?

  • Actually, it is a decline in the number of new inventors that your are seeing after 2002 rather than patents. The number of patents per year just is rather static after 2002. I think Nokia is principally expanding off-shore after 2002, where as this data is just for Finland.

  • […] 3. The New Zealand skills deficit This post was only my seventh, but the issues raised have continued to come up in later posts. It will be worthwhile continuing to track the numbers of graduate by field. In particular, I hope that the numbers of physical sciences PhD graduates in New Zealand does not continue to fall. This is also the only data-driven post in the top five.  The rule of thumb that every equation halves your readership seems to extend here to graphs and charts!  This probably shouldn’t surprise me. […]

  • […] and that National cut $55million from skills training last year and are presiding over a massive skills deficit shows that they aren’t looking after its future.  Tax credits are great for the entrepreneurial […]