Will Brexit dent doctoral student numbers?

Some believe the momentous referendum result may harm the UK’s ability to compete for the world’s best PhD students

July 17, 2016
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Experts remain divided on the crucial question of whether Brexit will lead to a fall in international student numbers in the UK, but nowhere does this risk carry potentially more impact than in the country’s doctoral education market.

While non-UK nationals represent a sizeable 15 per cent of full-time undergraduates, they account for just over half (51 per cent) of those pursuing full-time postgraduate research degrees – with 42,715 foreign students working towards a doctorate, according to latest Higher Education Statistics Agency figures.

But will the decision to leave the European Union really deter significant numbers of PhD students from studying in the UK?

The loss of academic networking opportunities across the European Union as a result of Brexit might cause some of the brightest and best PhD students to think twice about choosing the UK, believes Alistair McCulloch, head of research education at the University of South Australia.

“Doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects may also pay great attention to the likelihood of postdoctoral positions not being available once they graduate,” said Professor McCulloch, a former dean of research and knowledge at Edge Hill University.

“The withdrawal of the UK from the EU would put at risk the £1.2 billion a year that the UK receives from the EU’s research programmes, which support a significant number of these positions,” he continued.

Recent reports of low-level racist abuse in the wake of the Brexit vote might also tarnish the UK’s image in what is a “very competitive global market” for PhD students, Professor McCulloch added.

“It will take only a very few serious xenophobically motivated incidents in the UK to impact significantly on international applications for PhD places, as Australia found to its cost when a number of Indian research students in Melbourne were subject to racially motivated attacks a few years ago,” he said.

Professor McCulloch said he believed that, following the UK’s decision to exit the EU, many Australian universities would step up efforts to lure PhD students keen to learn in an English-speaking country.

“I would be very surprised if marketing departments were not already developing ways of promoting the many attractions of doctoral study Down Under, to the detriment of the UK,” he said.

Other issues that might deter international PhD candidates include a potential tightening of visa rules around students and their family members – a risk that has already seen credit agencies downgrade their ratings of several UK universities in recent weeks.

Any sharp fall in international PhD student numbers could also have knock-on effects on universities’ ability to undertake research, while graduate students are also often used to teach undergraduates.

The UK remains far more dependent on international PhD students than any other competitor country, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

Whereas 46 per cent of doctoral students in the UK were international in 2012, that figure was just 31 per cent in the US, 33 per cent in Australia and 16 per cent in Canada, says the paper, “International mobility of PhD students since the 1990s and its effect on China”, by Wenqin Shen (of Peking University), Chuanyi Wang (Wuhan University) and Wei Jin (from Beijing’s China Agricultural University), which was published in May.

However, there are those who believe that the uncertainty raised by Brexit will have little impact on student choice, particularly in the crucial market of China.

“As the UK has established very strong universities with an international reputation, I do not think Brexit would affect significantly their choices about further studies in the UK,” said Joshua Mok Ka-ho, from Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, who has researched the factors driving student choice in China.

With China keen to establish further collaborations with Western research and academic institutions, students, staff and businesses would still look to UK institutions regardless of Brexit, he added.

“In fact, with the value of the UK pound expected to go down further, from a customer perspective, UK study would become [more] appealing to students.”

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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