Skip to main content

Opening UK PhD funding to international students ‘a big shift’

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 21 Sep 2020

Allowing international students to apply for postgraduate funding from the UK’s research councils has been hailed as a “big shift” towards the country’s post-Brexit research environment.

UK Research and Innovation said international applicants would be eligible for studentships comprising a living costs stipend and the equivalent of the fees charged to domestic students from September 2021 onwards.

Previously only students from the UK, the European Union, the European Economic Area and Switzerland could apply for funding, but the shift reflects ministers’ desire to attract scientific talent from around the world – not just from Europe – after Brexit.

The proportion of international students appointed each year through doctoral training programmes will be capped at 30 per cent of the total, UKRI said.

“It’s a big shift, with political implications,” said Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester. “In most countries, the politics is ‘this is our money for our people’, fitting within the idea of a national competition on science, so it’s a big deal to change it.”

Dr Flanagan said the move could be viewed as compensation for the UK’s being locked out of EU research funding schemes, if that occurs. However, he noted, the government’s target to increase total expenditure on research and development to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product was also significant.

“Brexit makes the international dimensions of science obvious; this could be seen as a compensation for being shut out of EU programmes,” Dr Flanagan said. “On the other side, we are going to need a lot more PhD scientists and engineers, both in public and private sector research, if we are going to have any hope of achieving the 2.4 per cent target.”

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, said the move was “the logical step towards attracting global talent and investment to the UK. It is a great idea, and I wish it had happened years ago.”

Professor Reid – who co-authored a government-commissioned report that recommended the creation of a suite of fellowship programmes to attract many of the world’s most talented researchers and research students to the UK – added that it appeared to be part of a wider move from UKRI.

“Brexit seems to be a stimulus for raising R&D investment, but the UK was already thinking along these lines some years beforehand,” he said.

Frans Berkhout, executive dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London, predicted that there could be concerns about international applicants crowding out British candidates. Nevertheless, he argued, “the benefits you get from having a fully open science system in the UK, particularly post-Brexit, vastly outweigh any of these concerns”.

Previous restrictions on eligibility had been frustrating for many academic disciplines, such as international development, said Professor Berkhout, who warned that Brexit had created fears that the talent pool would shrink further. “In my opinion, UKRI should be looking at extending its internationalisation of research funding further,” he said.

Professor Berkhout also dismissed concerns that international researchers will “come here, benefit from a UK education and leave”, emphasising that scholars were “highly mobile”.

“That’s just as likely for a UK student who might get a job in the US or Australia,” he said. “On the other hand, a non-UK student could get a good job here and contribute to the UK research system.”