Britons spurning postgrad research

September 15, 2006

Foreigners fill the gap as universities struggle to attract home students. Anna Fazackerley reports.

The number of UK students opting for postgraduate study has stalled over the past decade, according to new data.

Although total student numbers soared between 1995 and 2005, there was a far smaller rise in the postgraduate research total - and this was due entirely to overseas recruitment, figures show.

Universities UK this week unveiled a ten-year analysis of trends in higher education, as vice-chancellors from across the country met in Exeter for UUK's annual residential meeting.

The Patterns of Higher Education Institutions in the UK report contains many positive messages about universities' performance over a tough decade.

Between 1995 and 2005, enrolments rose by 33 per cent overall. More specifically, institutions virtually doubled their lucrative intake of students from outside Europe: China, the US and India featured strongly, as did Greece.

There was a significant increase in the proportion of applications from both Asian and black ethnic minorities.

Warning bells

But a closer analysis of the data also sounds some warning bells for universities.

At a typical higher education institution, about a fifth of students take courses at postgraduate level. Yet when it comes to students embarking on a career in research, the picture is bleaker.

According to UUK's statistics, there was only a "marginal" rise in the numbers of postgraduate researchers between 1995-96 and 2004-05. More crucially, this rise is attributable entirely to students from abroad.

The proportion of international students on postgraduate research programmes rose from 36 per cent of the total cohort to 46 per cent. The number of UK enrolments have not increased.

These statistics will undoubtedly spark concerns about the future supply of academic researchers.

Geoff Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and chair of UUK's long-term strategy group, which produced the report, said: "We have a long record of bringing in excellent academic researchers from abroad, and that greatly benefits our research culture.

"But the problem is that ideally we also need to grow more of our own researchers at postgraduate level and on into a research career."

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford and Abingdon West and a member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, warned that the situation would only get worse with the arrival of top-up fees and increasing student debt.

He said: "In the sciences, where we are desperate for the best people to stay on, many choose to go to well-paid jobs in the City rather than to continue in debt by doing years in research."

Dr Harris said he that had talked to many postdoctoral researchers who were actively deterring undergraduates from a career in research because they felt so pessimistic about their own futures.

Ian Haines, director of the graduate school at London Metropolitan University, said that although PhD stipends had risen there was still a need for extra cash to attract research students.

He said: "I'm all in favour of PhD students having a proper social wage, even if that means they have to pay tax. We should regard them as employees rather than students."

Subject shifts

The report also reveals a profound change in the nature of education that institutions are providing, with a shift from some of the more traditional vocational subjects in favour of so-called softer subjects such as media studies and those in the humanities.

According to UUK data, subjects that have seen a major boom in the number of enrolments in the past ten years include philosophy, archaeology, music, drama, computer science, Spanish, Japanese and media studies.

Meanwhile, accountancy, some areas of business and management, the physical sciences and engineering have all experienced significant drops in numbers.

Brian Iddon, Labour MP for Bolton and a prominent campaigner for chemistry, called for more aggressive action to halt the trend and save core subjects such as science and engineering.

He said: "This might be what the student market wants; but it is not good for the country, and surely that is what counts. Archaeologists and philosophers will not keep up the knowledge economy."

But Professor Crossick said: "I do not believe, and UUK does not believe, that artificial intervention can create demand that is not there."

More generally, the report will fuel speculation that higher education is becoming feminised. It confirms that over the past decade women have come to dominate at every level, including in traditionally male courses such as law.

Details: Patterns of Higher Education Institutions in the UK: Sixth Report , http:///

Higher rewards: today's students are more likely to come away with a top-level degree. In the past ten years, the percentage of students gaining a first-class degree rose from 8 per cent to 11 per cent, and the number of those gaining either a first or an upper second climbed from 54 per cent to 60 per cent. The Universities UK report Patterns of Higher Education Institutions in the UK does not name specific institutions, but it admits that the two institutions giving the highest proportion of firsts are specialist music colleges.

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