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UK “losing ground” to Germany and Canada in the doctoral sphere

The UK’s international doctoral student numbers have shown “little growth”, and the likes of Germany and Canada are slowly catching up, new research has shown.
June 9 2022
4 Min Read

The UK’s international doctoral student numbers have shown “little growth”, and the likes of Germany and Canada are slowly catching up, new research has shown.

Inbound numbers for doctoral students in the UK are just 2.7% higher than they were in 2013, whereas Germany and Canada have had 62.5% and 22.9% growth respectively since the same year, the UUKi Global demand for UK postgraduate research degrees report has detailed.

“International students make a significant contribution to UK research, and they bring valuable connections which strengthen the university-to-university international research collaborations,” Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight and co-author of the report alongside UUKi, told The PIE News.

“A slow down in global talent to the UK research signals reduced attractiveness,” she continued.

Not only is the drop in numbers worrying, but the market share has also become an issue for the likes of UK and France – which suffered an almost 2% drop and 2.5% drop respectively. Germany’s market share has however jumped over 4%.

The UK has also suffered in regards to non-EU and EU postgraduate research entrants, which have been “volatile” since 2013/14.

“A slow down in global talent to the UK research signals reduced attractiveness”

EU PGR entrants were at 4,275 in 2014, and have declined by 22.3% in 2020/21. Non-EU students’ biggest drop was in 2015/16 to 2016/17, but even the 2020/21 recovery period didn’t bring numbers back up, with just 10,755 compared to 2013/14’s 10,910.

“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,” said UUKi head of global research and innovation Peter Mason.

“To help 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,” he continued.

Other recommendations given by the report also include developing a “well-funded research ecosystem” which “allows for flexible resources to support PGR recruitment”.

“HE systems are increasingly tasked to respond to societal challenges, and often, their ability to respond depends on the research talent they foster. For decades the UK has made a critical contribution to the training and nurture of global talent.

“A system-to-system approach is critical to ensure the UK government, national agencies and higher education institutions have a united front when engaging with international stakeholders,” Ilieva noted.

Another big trend around entrants is a demographic challenge. China was driving most of the group in non-EU entrants in 2020/21, and grew by 20.5% since 2019 – with a figure of about 3,800 students. Saudi Arabia was second in the last year, but sent just over 800 students, showing the dominance China has over postgraduate inbound recruitment.

“This increases the significance of Chinese researchers – many of them bring research links between their UK host institutions and the home university. Any reductions in the number of students will most likely impact bilateral research outputs, particularly those in STEM areas,” said Ilieva.

That domination from China also fed into one of the other big trends – a “significant increase” in the number of self-funded entrants in 2020/21.

“Over the past four years, the growth in self-funded doctorates from China accounted for 68% of the overall non-UK entrants to doctoral programs,” the report reads.

Overseas government funding, providers’ own funds, and UKRI funding as a major source of tuition fees have declined at the same time, meaning self-funded entrants are becoming more common.

Providers’ own funds are the now second most common source, and Chinese students are still making up one quarter of these numbers.

Overseas government funding has seen a continuing decline since 2018/19, except for in Ghana and Egypt – but this could largely be down to the constrictions of the Covid pandemic.

“I would expect fewer government-funded scholarships over the next few years -economic downturns and rising inflation will exert pressure on public funding for higher education,” Ilieva highlighted.

Despite all of this decline across trending issues in the report, one thing does seem to be steadily increasing – the demand for UK TNE in the postgraduate sphere.

These TNE postgraduate research degree numbers are at a current peak in 2020/21, at almost 7,500 – an 18.1% increase in just one year, compared to 2019/20.

“TNE enables UK HEIs to respond to the demands of local stakeholders. Dual and double PhD require joint supervisory teams from the two institutions, which requires a strategic commitment, and I believe it is more sustainable in the long term,” Ilieva said.

The top host countries were China, the US and Malaysia, which concurs with the number of campuses that have been opened in recent years in those countries.

The most growth to have been seen in these numbers, however, is mostly in the last five years – with China showing almost 100% growth between 2017-18 in 2020/21.

While Germany is doing well in terms of recruitment of postgraduates, TNE postgraduate research numbers have declined by 11.3% in the last four years.

“Almost half of the full-time PhDs are from overseas…their contribution to the global research production cannot be overstated”

Among the other recommendations made by the report is to “clearly articulate the role and value of international PGR students for UK science and innovation” – there must be, the report insists, more research on the outcomes of these international PGR graduates, not least their contribution to the UK’s economy.

“One of the areas that need serious consideration is the contribution of PhD students to the UK research production. Almost half of the full-time PhDs are from overseas, and I believe a significant proportion of the UK’s international research benefits from their inputs,” Ilieva insisted.

“Their contribution to the global research production cannot be overstated, and they should be at the core of the UK’s international research policy,” she added.

It also says that the UK’s trade relationships should come into play, which will reportedly in turn set up “co-investment programs leveraging international scholarship funding and create opportunities through free trade agreements and bilateral research funds”.

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