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    Who is teaching the best Photonics Courses?

    September 08 2017     |     comments

    At the recent World Technology Mapping Forum discussions in June 2017, one of the topics raised by several delegates was the challenge the Photonics industry will face in recruiting talented scientists and technicians to help build the ecosystem of tomorrow.

    Public Perception

    As an enabling technology, photonics doesn't have the media coverage that other professions enjoy.

    For instance, as a result of popular television crime dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, more students have chosen a career path in pathology. It has reached a point in some countries where there are more students than good jobs in forensic science. The so-called "CSI effect" has also increased awareness of the profession amongst the general public, some of whom will be called upon for juror service. In some cases though, jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques based on fictional technologies that are invented for dramatic effect.

    While it is unlikely that future drama series will suddenly have the need for a "photonics expert", general public awareness that photonics is driving more and more of the devices we use each day would be an advantage. At the WTMF, speakers such as Ton Backx (PhotonDelta), Lionel Kimerling (AIM Photonics Academy) and José Pozo (EPIC) each stressed the need to improve the visibility of photonics educations at all levels. They also applauded inititatives like the IEEE Women in Photonics Initiative which aims to improve diversity and gender balance within the optical engineering sector.

    PhotonDelta is currently building an initative to get a clearer overview of photonics education opportunities. We recently reported on efforts in Twente to coordinate courses at the University of Twente and Saxion University of Applied Sciences. But where is the overview of which courses are available, their cost and scope? 

    If you are involved in photonics education, please check your course entries on the StudyPortals sites mentioned below. Although the 320 Masters Courses we found are an impressive number, we know that many important initiatives are missing. We're thinking of developing a Photonics Education Portal where students can easily find the courses they are looking for. Let us know what you think at  

    Finding Photonics Courses

    It turns out the answers may lie a few kilometres from PhotonDelta's HQ. We spoke with Carmen Neghina who is Head of Intelligence at Studyportals. We met with her at their impressive global headquarters on the top floor of the former Philips factory that once produced plastics in downtown Eindhoven.


    Why is there a need for Studyportals?

    We were founded in the belief that education without boundaries enriches peoples’ lives. An interconnected world is a better place to live in. But without easy access to comprehensive course information, it is difficult for international students to compare and evaluate the thousands of university courses given around the world.

    Studyportals was started by three students from Eindhoven University of Technology. They were all industrial engineers and at the time, studying abroad was a mandatory component of the Industrial Engineering programme. They became frustrated when they wanted to pursue a master’s degree abroad but simply couldn't figure out the best option. They decided that an on-line portal to aggregate all the information was needed to make an informed decision.

    We believe we operate the largest database of study courses taught in English that are open to international students. The projection for this year is around 29 million unique visitors to our 9 sites. So, there is clearly a demand for what we do as international student numbers continue to increase rapidly.

    Growing From 1-9 sites

    We began with one site,, in 2007. It was a spin-off from the international student organisation ESTIEM (European Students of Industrial Engineering and Management).  In 2009, StudyPortals BV was founded during the process of professionalisation. Since then it has become a cluster of 9 portals as listed below:

    • - 54,172 Bachelors: Information about Bachelor’s programmes worldwide (B.A., B.Sc., BBA, LL.B.)
    • - 52,963 Masters. Information about Master’s programmes worldwide (M.A., M.Sc., MBA, LL.M)
    • - 4,337 PhDs. Information about Ph.D. opportunities worldwide (Ph.D. D.B.A.)
    • - 4,635 Courses. Information about International Summer Schools, Language Studies, Study Abroad Semesters, Conferences and other Short Courses and Certificate Programmes worldwide.
    • - 9,305 Courses. Information about online courses worldwide.
    • - 1,282 Scholarships. Information on finding and comparing scholarships worldwide.
    • - 174,657 Student Experiences. Portal for sharing study experiences to help other students make the right study choice.
    • - 8,903 Courses. Information about language learning options worldwide.
    • - 2,584 Courses. Information about university preparation courses worldwide.

    StudyPortals is best described as a “discovery engine”. So, it's a bit like the Amazon online catalogue, but for education. We started 8 years ago and today we have over 100,000 published courses that are taught in English. We have listed them on 8 separate portals which cater for the different levels and various kinds of education. And we have one extra portal where students share their experiences.

    A Photonics Example

    If we take the example of someone searching for a course to pursue their career in photonics, we see that on MastersPortal 320 study options are offered globally, of which 175 are in Europe. And if we look at postgraduate options in Europe on our PhDportal, you can already see 185 options in countries varying from Turkey and Russia to Poland and New Zealand. Some countries and institutions are better than others in explaining how the course is relevant to a specific career. Our portals enable students to compare the published courses and select their dream education abroad.

    For every study option, we aim to include as much relevant information as possible. So, to get listed on one of our Portals, we need a full description of exactly what the programme offers. That should include the research outline that a student would be following, plus the key factors about the starting dates, duration, how many credits, and the application requirements. For instance, do you need to take a special test to prove your comprehension and speaking skills in English? Is (part of) the course online or is it just offline?

    We also give details about tuition fees, funding and visa requirements. These days, fees depend on where you're from. For EU students, the fees may be different than for non-EU students. In the PhD positions, institutions may  offer a paid position in a photonics lab or you may have to fund it yourself.

    Listing 2450 educational institutions

    The information is usually sourced directly from the university and we actively collaborate with around 1000 universities. But we also do our own research. Two years ago, we decided that it's in the interest of all students to be as comprehensive and complete as possible. So, we also actively sought out content to add it to the portals. Today, we list the top 1500 universities in the world, with a total of about 2450 participating universities. So, StudyPortals goes beyond just the elite.

    International Politics changes choices

    We are closely watching the situations in the UK and USA as a result of Brexit and changes to the US immigration law with the Trump administration.

    For instance, the interest of international students wanting to study in Massachusetts (home to around 140 colleges and universities) dropped earlier this year by 17.07% and by 12.99% in California. NAFSA calculated that international students contributed $ 33 Billion and 400,812 jobs to the US economy in the ’15-’16 academic year. So, the total impact of the ban, just in higher education, would therefore be around $4 Billion and 48,000 jobs.

    At the same time, StudyPortals has also recorded an accelerated interest from American students looking to study abroad. Canadian universities are leading the list, followed by the United Kingdom (+55%) and Australia (+35%).

    Meanwhile in the UK, there are obviously uncertainties regarding the status of EU students studying in the UK and British students qualifying for lower tuition fees at EU universities. These concerns are already showing up in our data.  

    One in four international students comes from Asia

    Currently, there are more than 5 million students pursuing their education outside of their home countries. By 2022, the number of internationally mobile students is expected to reach 7 or 8 million according to a study by the Economist. The most significant growth in international education comes from Asian students who are looking to study abroad in English.

    China’s and India’s rise to the world’s top 10 most powerful economies (and South Korea currently holding the 15th place) has given a boost to an increased demand for higher education. These three countries are also leading sources of globally mobile students. One in six international students now comes from China, while Asian students make up more than a quarter of the world’s mobile students.

    International education is of course influenced by international politics, changing demographics and economic factors. We’re witnessing:

    • A sharp increase of English-taught Bachelor degrees in Europe;
    • Asia increasingly becoming a strong player - not just in sending students abroad, but also in receiving them;
    • Universities putting more emphasis on student diversity on campus;
    • a stronger emphasis on building interactive university websites;
    • Student recruitment is now a 24/7 effort for many institutions, with big data influencing the marketing decisions for universities;
    • shifting trends in discipline and sub-discipline popularity;
    • ROI in student recruitment activities is receiving much more attention.

    How is Studyportals financed?

    Everything is free for students. They don’t need to pay for information they receive. And it's free for universities to be listed because it's in our interest to offer accurate, comprehensive information. Without that, prospective students cannot make the right decision for their dream education abroad. Some universities have commissioned us to do additional marketing, advertising or promotion on a case by case basis.

    We’re coming up to our 9th anniversary. Eindhoven is still the home base. But now we also have offices in Boston, Bucharest, Melbourne and Manchester.  We've discovered that having these regional hubs means it becomes easier to build relationships with universities. We can understand their needs better by being on the ground. Every university is organised in a different way, and we see wide variations between say the USA and Australia or Europe.

    Who uses these portals?

    We believe we operate the largest database of study courses taught in English that are open to international students. If you take 2016, overall, we had about 19 million unique visitors worldwide.  And the projection for this year is around 29 million unique visitors. So, there is clearly a demand for what we do as international student numbers continue to increase rapidly.

    We're getting constant feedback from both the universities and the students. We do follow-up research to find out if the students succeeded in finding the right study programme. From this, we can conclude that we helped around 200,000 students in 2016 find the programme that suits them and enrol in the class.

    We do share student experiences on a separate site – There are around 175,000 reactions so far. These are usually comments about life on campus, tips on settling in, cultural differences to remember, etc. but not necessarily course-specific.

    Why don’t you also rate the quality of the courses?

    StudyPortals does not compare the quality of the education students receive. It is very difficult to do comparisons in an objective way. And there are other organisations, like the Times Higher Education, World University Rankings 2016-2017 which rank what they consider the 980 top universities in the world.

    Study choice is, of course, a subjective decision. Even the US Ivy League universities are not the best choice for everyone. We think it is better not to impose our own judgement on to what and where to study, but rather to empower students to make those decisions themselves.

    Are you seeing trends?

    Yes. With 19 million visitors per year looking at over 100,000 study programmes, this generates a massive amount of data. We spot which studies are becoming more popular and which disciplines and subdisciplines are trending. This also reveals the opportunities for new courses and the discrepancies between what universities offer and what student want.

    Current events do affect study choices. Brexit immediately comes to mind. The volume of international students studying in the UK hasn't changed (yet) but there are shifts in where the students are coming from and different stats depending on whether it's a Bachelor or a Master’s programme. We published our initial findings on Brexit last year, and there will be a follow-up later this year.

    Universities and colleges see StudyPortals as a smart investment on their behalf because they cannot reach students everywhere in the world.  Traditional marketing by universities doesn't help them to reach out to international students, especially if the goal is to have a diverse classroom. They cannot run campaigns in every country where they want to actively recruit, so doing it online is often an effective way of being seen and getting the best students for their university.

    Tell us more about the organisation and its culture

    We're a team of 170 people spread over the different offices (some of whom are pictured in the group shot above). Most work here at the headquarters in Eindhoven. In the early days, we received a lot of useful support from the local network, Eindhoven University of Technology and the city of Eindhoven. This region has become a world-class high-tech hub, which is attracting some of the best talent, both in engineering and design.

    Our CEO Edwin van Rest, one of the original founders, divides his time between Boston and Eindhoven as we expand the US side of the operations.

    We find it important to keep the collaborative student atmosphere alive within our teams. That means having a very clear company culture which is strong on giving feedback to stimulate personal growth. That helps to create a fun, energetic agile organisation.