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International postgraduate research students matter if the UK wants to become a science superpower. Here is what we can do to attract and retain them.

  • 14 June 2022
  • By Joana Westphal

This blog was written by Joana Westphal, Policy Advisor (Research Policy & Transnational Education) at Universities UK International. Joana is on Twitter @JoanaWestphal.

International postgraduate research (PGR) students are critical to the UK’s research and development (R&D) capability and its future talent pipeline. And the diverse community of PGR students is one of our leading strengths. The UK has been one of the most popular destinations for globally mobile PGR candidates in the last decade and in 2020-21, 47.8 per cent were non-UK candidates – possibly aided by the new graduate immigration route.

But an uncertain operating environment for higher education institutions to recruit PGR students is likely to have a negative impact on higher education institutions’ ability to maintain current levels of doctoral students. 

Universities UK International (UUKi), together with Education Insight, published a short report examining the trends in global demand for UK PGR degrees and deriving recommendations. So, here are six ways the sector and the Government can work together to support the recruitment of international PGR students to the UK.

  1. Clearly articulate the role and value of international PGR students for UK science and innovation

The UK government plans to make the UK a science superpower, raise investment in R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 and meet future challenges through research and innovation. This requires a sustainable number of highly skilled people ready and able to generate a step-change in UK R&D. 

International PGR students are an essential part of this policy. While it is no secret that they enrich the research culture, contribute to institutions’ research outcomes and collaborations, and can enhance research impact, their actual role in and value to the UK research base are still not clearly articulated. To raise the profile of international PGR students, future research could focus on their outcomes, including their contribution to the UK economy through staying in the UK or through collaborations with UK-based researchers after they have completed their degree. 

  • Conduct further qualitative research to understand the UK’s drawbacks as a study destination

While the UK is one of the most attractive destinations for international doctoral students, numbers coming to the UK have shown little growth. In 2019, the figures were just 2.7 per cent higher than they were in 2013. Instead, the UK is losing ground to Germany and Canada, which showed very strong growth and increased their market share over the same period. 

Now that we know what the trends are, more questions arise: How do PGR students decide where to do their degree? What makes those countries attractive? What barriers do PGR students face to coming to the UK? Further research, especially qualitative, is needed to understand the factors that influence doctoral students’ decisions and the barriers to pursuing a PhD in the UK, and to develop targeted policies that help attract and retain them.

  • Develop a well-funded research ecosystem

When looking at major sources of tuition fees, self-funded doctoral students were the main source of growth in 2020-21 – they increased by 13.4 per cent, whereas overseas Government-funded students and those on institutional tuition fee waivers decreased. Also, tuition fee funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has declined across most research councils since 2017-18: only the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council saw an increase in international doctoral student numbers in 2020-21. 

Economic downturns, rising inflation levels, and exchange rate depreciation due to the COVID-19 pandemic put financial pressure on individuals, overseas governments, and UK institutions’ ability to offer tuition fee waivers and scholarships, and may therefore have a negative impact on the recruitment of international PGR students.

To continue to attract international PGRs we therefore need a well-funded research ecosystem in which institutions continue to have flexible resources to deploy and attract talent. UKRI needs resources and funding flexibility to support growth in PGR numbers. Strategic bilateral funding should be used to support the growth in international PGR student numbers, including through blended funding and developing economies.  

  • Develop collaborative approaches and utilise transnational education partnerships

Demand for UK PGR degrees delivered overseas, that is via UK transnational education (TNE), has been increasing steadily over the last decade. The proportion of PGR students of all UK TNE students was still small in 2020-21 – only 1.5 per cent – but grew by 18.1 per cent compared to the previous academic year.

TNE partnerships are attractive to overseas countries as they benefit both the host country and institutional partner; for example, they can help enhance the quality of domestic higher education and build capacity. This is a priority for many countries, including Pakistan, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, TNE can support UK universities’ onshore recruitment, develop research links and lead to further collaboration. This is an opportunity the UK on which the UK should capitalise. Dual and double PhD programmes, for instance, can help build capacity in-country and generate new markets and cohorts for future recruitment. 

  • Diversify PGR recruitment

International PGR recruitment is increasingly reliant on a few countries. Except for China and India, all top 10 source countries for PGR students declined since 2017-18. In 2020-21, non-EU PGR entrants, especially from China, were driving the UK’s overall recruitment performance with numbers growing to about 3,800 students. Saudi Arabia was ranked second that year but sent just over 800 PGR students to the UK. Top sending countries in Europe were Italy, Germany and Greece with international PGR student numbers between 315 and 605.

To attract a diverse range of skills, experiences and talent from across the world, we need to work together to reduce policy and funding barriers and ensure the quality and positioning of the UK’s offer to international students, so that UK higher education institutions can diversify their recruitment of PGR students regarding domiciles, subject and study modes. 

  • Strategically use the UK’s trade relationships

Finally, the UK has strong trade relationships, and the Government aims to secure an ambitious programme of free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries covering the majority of the UK’s trade this year. These FTAs aim to reduce trade barriers between the countries to benefit the whole of the UK across different sectors, including higher education. This provides an opportunity to set up co-investment programmes that leverage international scholarship funding and create opportunities through FTAs and bilateral research funds.

For the full analysis, see the report, Global demand for UK postgraduate research degrees: trend, challenges and opportunities.

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