Nearly four in ten research students are from outside the UK, prompting fears that Britain's research community is becoming over-dependent on foreign talent.
Piera Gerrard, deputy director of education, British Council marketing division, told a conference on the future of the UK doctorate that in 2002-03, 37 per cent of Britain's 104,000 postgraduate research students were from overseas, many from European Union countries. In 1998-99, the proportion was 32.5 per cent.
"The number of non-UK postgraduate research students is expected to grow by 4 per cent a year while UK research student numbers are static or declining," she said. "This is despite the fact that the number of UK undergraduates is increasing, so the potential pool of talent is higher than ever."
The UK relies particularly on overseas research students in science and engineering. Well over 2,000 study electrical engineering, by far the largest proportion among all science and engineering subjects. Computer science, chemistry and general engineering are also popular with non-UK students.
"This is an important slice of our science base," Ms Gerrard told the annual UK Grad conference. She added that 26 per cent of the total UK postgraduate population came from overseas. In the US, overseas postgraduates made up 13 per cent of the postgraduate population; it also has a far larger proportion of home students studying science.
"This means the UK science base is particularly reliant on international demand - and this is proving to be highly volatile," she said.
As The Times Higher reported this month ("Crisis fear as foreign applicants shun Oz", September 3), Australia, New Zealand and the US face a levelling off, if not a fall, in overseas student numbers.
Ms Gerrard said: "Earlier this year, the British Council published a major report that, while predicting long-term growth of overseas student numbers in UK higher education, also warned that, in the short term, the market could be highly volatile. This appears to be the case."
She also presented figures on the concentration of research students. Ten per cent of UK universities teach 48 per cent of postgraduate research students. Cambridge University is significantly ahead of Oxford University, which in turn is ahead of its nearest Russell Group rival, Nottingham University.
The conference heard how research degrees were likely to be affected by the Bologna process, which aims to promote comparability in higher education qualifications across 40 signatory countries. Ministers meeting in Berlin last year decided to include the doctoral level in the third cycle of the Bologna process.
Jessica Olley of the UK Higher Education Europe Unit, based at Universities UK, said: "The unit has been set up to monitor and influence developments.
We have three concerns about research degrees: we want flexibility on the length of doctoral-level qualifications; we do not want teacher training included as it is in much of Europe; and we do not want to see the European doctorate defined in terms of a blueprint. We are pushing for a framework."
Following the Berlin meeting, the European University Association launched a doctoral programmes project to contribute to the debate on European research training. The project will focus on exchanging good practice and experience across Europe and will make recommendations to the next Bologna ministerial summit in Norway in May 2005.
Eight UK universities are participating in the project. A seminar on doctoral programmes will take place in Salzburg, Austria, next February, and will make concrete recommendations that will feed directly into the Norway summit. "It is essential that universities with concerns about developments contact the unit so that we can influence the debate," Ms Olley said.
TOP 10 PLAYERS
Foreign postgrad numbers:
* Cambridge 3,510
* Oxford 2,0
* Nottingham 1,370
* Birmingham 1,365
* Edinburgh 1,060
* Sheffield 1,040
* Manchester 1,015
* Newcastle 990
* UCL 970
* Imperial 965
Source: British Council