Research councils want to be able to fund overseas students to do PhDs, which would mark a radical change in policy that could prove highly controversial, writes Claire Sanders.
The initiative, designed to ensure that the UK attracts the best students globally, is raising fears that home students could suffer.
A new careers strategy, published by Research Councils UK this week, says:
"In future, the research councils will try to persuade the Government to allow them to award their own studentships to candidates from outside the UK."
There are a few funding initiatives for overseas PhD students, such as the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Awards, but generally such students pay their own fees and living costs.
Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London and former chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: "I would support a targeted and time-limited scheme aimed at those subject areas, such as science and technology, which have found it hard to recruit. In my view, it would be unfortunate to introduce widespread global access to this funding."
He pointed out that competition for AHRC studentships was already extremely intense.
Last September a report from the long-term strategy group of Universities UK, which Professor Crossick also chairs, said the number of research students had grown only marginally in the past nine years and that this growth was due entirely to overseas students. "Ideally we also need to grow more of our own researchers at postgraduate level," he said.
Iain Cameron, head of research careers and diversity at RCUK, said that a number of research councils had long expressed an interest in funding the very top PhD students.
"This is about quality, ensuring that we attract the best students globally," he added.
He said that the RCUK would look carefully at the implementation of any new scheme.
"It would not be our intention to dent home student numbers, which have held steady in recent years. And we would ensure that we did not simply replace private funding with government funding."
Simon Felton, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said: "We would support government funding of overseas students as long as the arrangements were reciprocal."
But he added that the priority for UK government funding had to be the UK research base. Initiatives to boost growth in home student numbers should be encouraged, he said.
The careers strategy from the RCUK also sets out a careers path mapping tool. This will allow new researchers to access case studies on the web that show how experience in research can lead to a number of careers.
The RCUK also wants to assess the impact of council bursaries enabling students who were not considering a research career to try out this work in the summer holidays.
The strategy will be implemented by the RCUK's Research Careers and Diversity Unit, set up in April 2005.