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Self-funded international students central to a decade of PhD growth

The number of students coming to the UK from outside the EU to start a PhD increased by 115 per cent over the past decade, figures published last month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England indicate.

This group increased from 2,840 to 6,105 between 1996-97 and 2009-10.

The report, PhD Study: Trends and profiles 1996-97 to 2009-10, finds that the number of people who started a full-time PhD over the past decade rose from 9,990 to 18,075, or by 81 per cent. There were 6,005 UK-domiciled students who started full-time PhDs in 1996-97, compared with 9,420 in 2009-10, an increase of 57 per cent.

But the increase in EU and overseas full-time PhD starters during the same period was 122 per cent and 115 per cent respectively. The number of full-time PhD starters from the EU rose from 1,150 in 1996-97 to 2,550 in 2009-10. Those coming from outside the EU rose from 2,840 to 6,105 over the same period, outstripping the growth rate of UK students in all but the last three years covered by the report.

However, the tightened visa restrictions for overseas students imposed by the coalition government have created concern that the increase in PhD numbers during the Labour years is now set to decline.

In a statement published on 2 November, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK warned the government about the potential effects of its immigration policies. “It’s important that the UK appears ‘open for business’ to those individuals who are genuinely committed to coming to the UK to study at one of our highly-regarded universities,” she said.

But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says the government’s visa restrictions are only intended to stop bogus education providers. “The international mobility of students and researchers is recognised as a fundamental pillar of our excellent science and research base,” a spokeswoman told Research Fortnight. “We have overhauled the student visa system in order to tackle abuses whilst continuing to attract the brightest and genuine PhD students.”

Nevertheless, the looming threat of reduced PhD numbers is also strongly linked to spending cuts in higher education at home, according to Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

“Money really matters when it comes to attracting postgraduate and other researchers,” she says. “Competition from well-funded US and other rivals is intense. Countries around the world are providing generous bursaries and hosting cutting-edge facilities in order to attract the best postgraduates. They are also investing more in their universities and postgraduates to boost innovation and economic growth. The UK cannot afford to be outmanoeuvred by global competitors who clearly recognise that investment in research and higher education is key to growth.”

The BIS spokeswoman responded that the research councils will continue to fund “high numbers” of PhD students.

According to the HEFCE report, the largest source of funding for UK-based starters in 2009-10 was the UK’s research councils. Those from the EU and overseas, meanwhile, were mostly self-funded.

The report also found that art and design subjects saw the biggest increase in full-time PhD starters between 1996-97 and 2009-10, at 338 per cent. Veterinary and agricultural science grew by only 1 per cent during the same period. The number of full-time medicine and dentistry students grew by 134 per cent, with full-timers in the biological sciences growing by 28 per cent, physics by 96 per cent and chemistry by 17 per cent.