IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Global postgraduate talent crucial to UK research

17 July 2018

A research findings paper published today (17 July 2018) by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) academics reveals the importance of international postgraduates to the UK's research sector.

Science research student. © UCL Creative Media Services; photographer: Mary Hinkley

In the paper, Dr Ludovic Highman and Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for Global Higher Education, based at the IOE, look at the extent to which UK universities' research power depends on a global supply of high quality postgraduate research students.

They point out that international student numbers are exceptionally high at postgraduate research level in the UK as universities are currently able to pick and choose from the world's top academic talent.

Overall, almost one third of the UK's postgraduate research population comes from countries outside the European Union (EU) and almost 15 per cent from other countries within the EU. The proportion of international postgraduates in STEM subjects and at Russell Group universities is even higher. In some universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, over half of all postgraduate research students are international.

According to the paper, UK universities depend on non-UK postgraduate research students to enhance their research capacity and ensure teaching excellence.

The paper states: "Many postgraduate research students are also part of the future generation of UK academics. Anything that diminishes their numbers or prevents them from pursuing the same research opportunities as before Brexit is likely to fundamentally damage the future of UK universities as international renowned global beacons of excellence."

Student in class

Particular attention is paid to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research. This is a key part of the government's Industrial Strategy and non-UK students are vital as the home supply of postgraduate STEM talent is insufficient.

The researchers warn that should the potential supply of high quality postgraduate research students falter, whether due to Brexit or due to restrictive policies on international students, not only will UK universities suffer, the country will suffer. The effects of a decline in the flow of top-drawer talent won't show themselves quickly. But in the long term it would undermine scientific excellence, innovation and industrial productivity.

The authors conclude by saying:

"Just as a great football team relies on an excellent youth academy to train future players and contribute to the wider football arena through transfers, a university must safeguard its future, and the future of the academy, through its postgraduate research students. Like a great football team, a research university must be able to invite in young talent from anywhere. Unlike a wealthy and successful football team that can readily rely on its financial resources to compensate for a sudden absence of talent, a university has limited resources to buy in the best academics. 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."

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Anna Phillips
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Top: © UCL Creative Media Services; photographer: Mary Hinkley