Analysing HESA data, the paper found that EU and non-EU students typically account for 40% of all postgraduate research efforts.
“It is not just about structural limitations, it is about climate and perceptions”
Their proportion rises to 51% in STEM subjects, with computer science and engineering at 58% and 59% respectively.
This is testament to the attractiveness of UK HEIs, but on the other hand it generates concern for the sector’s vulnerability in case of a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
Making up such a large share of UK postgraduate research, international students are crucial for fuelling research capacity and provide a pipeline of future UK academics.
Again, this is especially true for STEM subjects, where demand from domestic students is not sufficient.
“Unlike a wealthy and successful football team that can rely on its financial resources to compensate for a sudden absence of talent, a university has limited resources to buy in the best academics,” the paper explained.
“It depends on continued high calibre research to lure staff. In maintaining high quality research, non-UK postgraduates are absolutely crucial to UK higher education.”
Besides the risk of a ‘hard Brexit’, other factors work against the UK’s ability to keep attracting international postgraduates, Marginson told The PIE News.
He mentioned as an example visa costs, “intrusive and unpleasant” interviews as part of the student visa application, police registration, and most importantly a less favourable post-study work regime compared to competitor destinations.
“It is not just about structural limitations, it is about climate and perceptions,” he told The PIE.
“The post-study visa regime and student surveillance, combined with the effects of Brexit, European students’ sense of being less valued or less welcome, has a discouraging effect.”
To mitigate the potential damage of a ‘hard Brexit’ on this particular segment of HE, Marginson said the UK needs bespoke immigration policies designed to attract students. These include a post-study work visa regime “at least as good as that on offer in Canada.”