As befits its high standing in the academic world, the UK draws postgraduate students from more than 150 countries, representing a high and steadily rising proportion of all students in British universities.
In 2011-12 there were nearly 2.5 million university students in the UK, with more than 550,000 undertaking postgraduate studies – and nearly 210,000, or 38%, were from outside Britain, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Only 54,000 international postgraduate students were from other European Union (EU) countries, a figure dwarfed by the 96,240 postgraduates from Asia, with the major shares represented by China (37,876) and India (21,765). Another 20,585 postgraduates were from Africa and 14,640 from the Middle East.
The question of whether many PhD and other postgraduate students from developing countries stay on to work in the UK is not simply answered. That is partly because there are no relevant follow-up employment statistics and partly because the UK has not used its regulatory system to encourage the practice, as the United States has done.
“The US is very aware that its postgraduate engineering base is very dependent on international students but this is not so in the UK because the regulations about staying on have typically made it harder for international students,” said Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs.
It was true that the UK student population was “very, very highly international and increasingly so”, Merrick said. It was also very likely that a significant number completed PhDs in Britain and that many of those with PhDs stayed to work in other sectors.
“Nevertheless, the short answer is that apart from a brief period in the past few years when it was a bit easier, the UK system has never particularly encouraged people to stay on after study. So the picture is that a number will have managed to do that; but probably a large number have returned to their home countries or gone on to third countries.”
Many academic staff are foreign
A study published in 2007 by Universities UK, the voice of the British higher education sector, noted that 27% of all academic staff appointed in the previous year were non-UK nationals and that the increasing numbers of international students in the UK were a major source of new entrants to the profession.
Pay was a significant consideration “but other factors relating to working conditions, pensions, administrative burdens and bureaucracy may become more important", the report said. Although dated, the report appeared to foreshadow many of today’s concerns:
“There are potential risks associated with an over-reliance on non-UK staff who may return home or go elsewhere at some point”. And: “There may also be growing pressure to consider the ethical dimensions of recruiting international staff, particularly those from developing countries in subject areas such as health.”
Gareth Morgan, a senior press officer at Universities UK, said there was now “a lot of fluidity: people can work for a certain period of time, if they do a doctorate they may well stay on for a period as visiting professor, or may go back to the country of origin and come back again”.
There was also considerable movement in academic circles, often in very specific research areas “which we think is a good thing", Morgan said. “It builds links between the UK and other countries in the sense of building research capacity and in certain important subjects PhD students from outside the UK often support those areas of study.
“Without them, if they go on to be lecturers as well, many important subject areas wouldn’t be viable and departments would be closing,” he said. The new catchphrase now was not ‘brain drain’ but ‘brain circulation’.
People did not necessarily stay in one country: “They may spend say five years in the UK studying, then go to the US, Canada or Australia for a period of study there and then return to their own countries. You would be hard pressed to find someone in a study area that stays with that country for the duration of their career.”
A further point was made by Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. “We live in a global market and talented people will go where they can to get the best deal that suits their circumstances,” Bell said.
“The UK economy benefits immensely from retaining postgraduate talent. We should also bear in mind that while international postgraduate students may decide to remain in the UK immediately after study, longer-term these talented individuals may return home to the greater benefit of their domicile – equipped with a world-class education and experience of working in the UK.”
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