UK losing PGR entrants to Germany and Canada, universities warn

Universities UK International says the government must flexibly fund PGR routes and broker new co-funding arrangements in post-Brexit trade deals

The UK higher education sector faces losing a share of the vital international postgraduate market as research students look to Germany and Canada.

A research paper from Universities UK International, using data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), shows that British university recruitment of postgraduate researchers peaked in 2013-14 – remaining volatile since.

“International postgraduate research (PGR) students are an important part of the UK research base,” said Peter Mason, UUKI head of global research and innovation policy. “Representing almost 50% of all PGR students in the UK, they contribute to the growing proportion of university research [that] is world-leading.”

Germany and Canada are gaining ground against the UK in attracting international doctoral students, UUKI warns. Non-EU PGR entrants – especially from China – have fuelled the UK’s relative success. Some, including Conservative-leaning think tank Onward, have warned UK universities are too financially dependent on Chinese student recruitment.

Our new report shows there is currently an uncertain operating environment for universities to recruit international PGR students, which is likely to have a negative impact on universities’ ability to maintain the current levels of doctoral students
– Peter Mason, UUKI

Since 2020-21 there has been a “significant” increase in the number of self-funded PGR entrants, mainly attributable to the continued growth in recruitment from China. The funds available from universities, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and overseas governments have dropped as a source of funding for PGRs, meaning students are liable for a greater share of their fees and account for the largest share overall. This may contribute to a lack of diversity in PGR entrants from other parts of the globe.

But there has been an increase in UK transnational education (TNE) PGR degrees in the last decade – with half of TNE students studying overseas via flexible, distributed learning models. Between 2019-20 to 2020-21, UK TNE PGR students increased by 18.1%.

The report makes the case for more research into the barriers that may disincentivise international PGR applicants. Other priorities for the government include a “well-funded research ecosystem” that enables universities to fund students flexibly and post-Brexit trade deals that establish new co-investment programmes. TNE partnerships should be part of a shift to “diversify” the overall level of PGR recruitment away from China.

Said Mason: “Strong international PGR recruitment is […] crucial for the government’s long-term goal of making the UK a science superpower.

“Our new report shows there is currently an uncertain operating environment for universities to recruit international PGR students, which is likely to have a negative impact on universities’ ability to maintain the current levels of doctoral students. To help the sector deal with these challenges, the UK government should increase current R&D funding levels and UK universities should utilise TNE partnerships to create new collaborative international PGR study opportunities and generate new potential markets.”


Read more: UK needs ‘regional’ international education strategies, says Skidmore

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