Overseas student fees are sustaining United Kingdom universities' research effort in several key fields, the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs has warned.
In some crucial areas, Ukcosa has told the House of Commons education select committee, research would collapse without the income from fee-paying overseas postgraduates.
Clive Saville, chief executive of Ukcosa, supplied figures that reveal that in key areas such as engineering and business studies, more than half of all postgraduate research students are from overseas, saving departments from closure with their fees and carrying out much of the hands-on research.
Across all subjects, nearly 32 per cent of research postgraduates and nearly 19 per cent of taught postgraduates are from overseas.
"Universities are becoming dependent on international students' fees not just for general income but for the viability of entire departments," said Sir Clive. "If you consider that in some subject areas more than 50 per cent of postgraduate students are international, then an enormous proportion of universities' research effort depends on them. A large number of research departments would close without them," he said.
Figures from a joint report by Ukcosa and the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, Student Mobility on the Map, spelt out the importance of overseas fee income at Britain's leading research universities.
At the London School of Economics, the UK's biggest recruiter of overseas students, 98 per cent of postgraduate research students are from overseas. At Cambridge University the figure is 54 per cent and at Oxford it is 49 per cent. "And that is across the board," said Sir Clive. "Imagine how large the proportions are in some of the key research fields."
Average fees for overseas students are more than Pounds 6,500 for classroom-based courses, more than Pounds 8,000 for laboratory-based work and more than Pounds 16,000 for clinical courses.
Ukcosa has warned that underfunding the higher education sector could create a snowball effect: as funding gets tighter, facilities and supervision become less attractive and overseas students choose other countries, diminishing the UK's reputation further.