UK losing ground on international PhD student recruitment

UK has lost market share to research rivals despite taking on many more self-funded Chinese doctoral students, report finds

六月 9, 2022

The UK is losing ground to Germany, Canada and Australia in attracting international doctoral students despite its success in recruiting Chinese postgraduates, a new study says.

While the UK remains the biggest destination for PhD students outside the US, the overall number of international doctoral candidates has fallen by 5 per cent, or about 2,400 students, since 2016 to 48,579 in 2019, according to a Universities UK report published on 9 June.

The number of European Union-based doctoral students has fallen even more sharply, with EU entrant numbers in 2020-21 – 3,320 – down 22 per cent compared with 2013.

Meanwhile, international doctoral numbers rose in Germany and Canada by 63 per cent and 34 per cent – to around 30,000 and 18,000 in 2019 – respectively compared with 2013. Over the same period, the UK’s numbers rose by just 2.7 per cent.

Those trends saw the UK’s market share of international doctoral numbers fall from about 21 per cent to 19 per cent between 2013 and 2019, despite significant growth from China, from where entrant numbers have increased by 22 per cent since 2017-18, standing at about 3,800 in 2020-21.

The report also notes how a growing number of entrants – 39 per cent – are self-funded rather than receiving money from an international funder, an overseas government or UK Research and Innovation, which makes about a third of its PhD programmes available to non-UK residents.

Many more PhD students are also studying for a UK research degree while living abroad, the report also found; about 7,500 students were taking a UK-led research degree overseas in 2020-21 compared with just 1,500 in 2007-08.

Peter Mason, head of global research and innovation policy at Universities UK International, said the study, which drew on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, highlighted how international postgraduate research (PGR) students were an important part of the UK research base.

“Representing almost 50 per cent of all PGR students in the UK, they contribute to the growing proportion of university research which is world-leading, and expand our institutions’ global scientific reach and networks,” he said, adding that “strong international PGR recruitment is therefore crucial for the government’s long-term goal of making the UK a science superpower”.

The latest report indicated the “uncertain operating environment for universities to recruit international PGR students, which is likely to have a negative impact on universities’ ability to maintain the current levels of doctoral students”, Mr Mason added.

“To help the sector deal with these challenges, the UK government should increase current research and development funding levels, and UK universities should utilise transnational education partnerships to create new collaborative international PGR study opportunities and generate new potential markets,” he said.



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