Fall in foreign PhD students imperils science – Experts

An alarming fall in the number of research students from the European Union and a drop in new PhDs from China are threatening to have a ‘compound impact’ on the research output of the United Kingdom within the next five to 10 years, warn international higher education experts.

With UK universities and research institutions relying on more than 80% of PhD students coming from outside the UK in critical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas like material sciences, alarm bells should be ringing at the 42% decline in European full-time PhD entrants in the last academic year (2021-22).

And it is not only the Brexit effect that is hitting the research talent pipeline to the UK.

“China has the most significant percentage of research students in the UK, with about 28% of entrants to PhDs, but those numbers are dropping as well,” said Dr Janet Ilieva, director and founder of Education Insight, at a webinar to unveil the latest update of her organisation’s Global Engagement Index (GEI).

The GEI was originally launched by Education Insight in October 2020 to measure what UK institutions are good at in terms of international higher education – “the things that really matter” – and not simply those things that regulators and rankers focus on, as University World News reported at the time.

Alarm bells in government

Ilieva’s warnings about the impact of the collapse in new international PhD entrants on the future of UK science were echoed by Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Research England, which hosted the webinar.

Marginson told an online discussion after Ilieva outlined the latest GEI findings: “There is no doubt that people in government are well aware of the problem of research capacity and not enough internationals coming in. I have had a couple of meetings with people who have indicated that this is ringing alarm bells in government.

“But I don’t know whether it’s getting through to the political space. That’s the problem. There is a kind of blockage between what the ministries can see and what the departments can see and what’s actually been done in the cabinet room at the moment. And maybe that’s going to have to be unlocked by the next election.”

Ilieva said that with countries cutting back on expenditure in higher education and British universities facing a continued financial squeeze, there is less money around for government-backed scholarships to fund PhDs from overseas or fee-waivers for talented overseas research students who lack their own financial means.

“It does look a bit bleak and I don’t think this conversation has received the prominence it deserves.

“The lack of PhDs will hit academic careers in the next five to 10 years, and it will have a compound impact on the research output of the UK as the highest concentration of European and Chinese academics are in the exact same areas that the highest concentration of PhD students are found,” said Ilieva.

Decline in geographical diversity

The latest edition of the GEI highlights another problem, particularly since Brexit: the increasing concentration of international students from a small number of countries. This is “particularly acute at the masters level” at many UK universities, Ilieva told University World News.

Analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Standard Registration Population data shows that UK higher education institutions recruited more than half of their masters’ entrants from one or two countries in 2021-22. This has been accompanied by a surge of students coming to the UK from Nigeria and India for masters’ degrees.

The HESA data used in the GEI also shows a big decline in the geographical diversity of full-time first-degree entrants between 2017-18 and 2021-22, with over half of UK universities now getting the majority of their international undergraduate students from just two or three countries.

Looking at trends in international student recruitment across all levels of qualifications, it is only postgraduate taught (PGT) degrees that are increasing in both numbers and market share, with international students now making up 67% of PGT students at British universities.

So, despite the media headlines over the summer predicting that UK-domiciled school leavers might be squeezed out by more ‘lucrative overseas students’, undergraduate international recruitment has flattened from the main sending countries: China, India and Vietnam.

“The only way the main recruiting countries like the UK and Australia can grow is by ‘stealing from each other’s market share’ unless they can create cost-effective pathways through transnational education programmes and articulation agreements, which enables the students to study part of their course in their home country,” said Ilieva.

Students from areas hit by conflict

Widening the discussion, Ilieva offered a glimpse of the future just around the corner, by pointing out that the real growth in student mobility was from countries like Syria and other states caught up with the “unstable state of affairs in the world”.

Using data from UNESCO, she said that Syria was already one of the largest sending countries of international students, with nearly 100,000 students studying abroad. That’s more than traditional sending countries like South Korea, Brazil, Nigeria and Pakistan.

The latest figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that in 2021 there were 47,483 Syrian students enrolled in Turkiye, with a further 16,653 in Germany; 6,558 in Saudi Arabia; 6,480 in Jordan and 1,476 in France.

“Possibly in five years’ time, maybe sooner, we will be talking more about how we engage with students from areas affected by conflict,” said Ilieva.

Marginson said the focus was already turning to how to cope with “forced mobility from failed states, military conflict, climate emergencies and the collapse in agriculture” and the relationship between migration and education.

“This is not something that the UK talks about much. And it is one of the differences between the UK and Australia. [They are] very similar countries in many ways, but Australians are open, policy wide, about seeing international education as a way to build their demography through migration.

“About 30 to 40% of international students eventually secure permanent residence and become long-term citizens of Australia. This is an accepted normal use of the international students’ route, and explains the appeal of Australia to Indian students,” said Marginson.

And it is why Marginson is certain Australia will overtake the UK and attract record numbers of international students, despite having a much smaller population.

“The UK cannot say [to international students] that we welcome the possibility that you could migrate because there is so much migration resistance for various reasons in the UK,” he said.

Link between migration and study

Marginson predicted that “the link between migration and study and mobility will play out again and again as an issue”, saying: “Students coming from war zones and climate nature emergencies won’t have a lot of money usually and so from a commercial point of view they are not as valuable as the middle class in China, with its business family incomes and the capacity to pull family incomes and savings together.

“And so there will be a lot of issues of conscience for the UK. Will it support and encourage students coming from war zones and climate change emergencies and subsidise them, or not?”

Dr Vangelis Tsiligkiris, an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University and founder of the TNE Hub, also took part in presenting the new data from the new GEI and suggested UK universities were now adopting “a more holistic” approach to global engagement. International mobility and transnational education were no longer just driven by financial motives, he said.

This has been accompanied by favourable changes in the regulatory environment in transnational education (TNE) partner countries, with TNE being seen as contributing to increasing access to higher education, especially for women and other disadvantaged groups in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where it is difficult to afford the cost of studying abroad.

However, Tsiligkiris said there is still a need to move the UK government’s narrative away from only seeing international education as ‘export’ or ‘trade’ led.

TNE should be seen as capacity building, particularly in Official development assistance countries, and the UK’s internationalisation strategy for higher education needs to move towards a global engagement strategy to support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Two parts to the GEI

As for the GEI 2021-22, it once again highlights the individual strengths and weaknesses of different UK universities in two parts.

Section A concentrates on the demand side of global engagement and the relative success of international students at different UK universities. The B section looks at the supply side and the comparative performance of the institutional infrastructure to support internationalisation. It then gives an overall score, based on one to five stars.

One area in which the new Index was unable to offer a measurement was international graduate outcomes. HESA is no longer telephoning international students from outside the European Union, who have returned home after graduating from British universities to discover their employment or other status as part of cost-cutting move, as University World News reported last year.

This has led to a huge decline in the response rate as HESA now relies on emailing the graduates, many of whom will have changed their email addresses after leaving university and Ilieva said the 18% response rate was “not good enough” to include as reliable data.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.