Research findings

Preserving the DNA of UK universities: the key role of non-UK postgraduate research students

Published July 2018

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We cannot understand the risks posed by Brexit to the UK higher education (HE) system simply by taking a bird’s eye view of the system at the macro-level, treating the ‘university’ as a one and indivisible unit and the ‘student’ as a one-size-fits-all category.

This misses the diversity of higher education institutions (HEIs), the multitude of disciplines they harbour that cater for all dimensions of human activity and the different types of students they enrol.

We offer a more fine-grained analysis, focusing on one dimension of higher education and research with many ramifications. That is the role of non-UK postgraduate research students in UK research. These students substantially enhance UK research capacity and teaching excellence and UK HEIs are highly dependent on them.

The UK higher education system as a kaleidoscope of HEIs

Not all HEIs are equally affected by Brexit, or affected in the same ways. Even within membership groups, such as the Russell Group, MillionPlus, the United Kingdom Arts and Design Institutions Association (ukadia) or University Alliance, each university is different. Each has a distinctive mission and set of core activities, based on the disciplinary mix which defines its course offering, research capacity and intensity, wealth, size, location, selectivity, target audience and its regional, national and/or international engagement. Some universities are located in global cities, others are rural and depend on a narrowly defined regional intake. Some are multi-billion operating institutions that can cushion a sudden hit.

For example, Imperial College London is a research oriented, science-focused institution. The Open University focuses predominantly on teaching and excels in distance learning opportunities. Birkbeck University specialises in evening higher education. This diversity has crucial implications in terms of the ability to win substantial EU research funding, or capacity to attract non-UK EU students or secure European structural funds based on the characteristics of the region. Thus, this mix of characteristics also affects vulnerability to a hard Brexit.

Sector-wide analyses of the effects of Brexit can be misleading, as high performing institutions, and even certain disciplines within institutions, pull the metrics up. Increasing competition for resources (students, staff, research funding etc) risks making the situation harder for some universities that already struggle filling places, attracting international staff or securing research grants. With fewer pots of research funding and further concentration of funding opportunities, competition for national research funding can be expected to become fiercer, and reinforce disparities in research power between UK HEIs, with the established hierarchy of institutions already securing the lion’s share of national funding and maintaining their position.

The reproduction of the academic class: preserving the UK’s research eco-system

The UK research eco-system relies on postgraduate research student numbers for its continuity and survival. Research intensive and research-led HEIs depend on them as a funded talent pool that builds the capacity of postgraduate research programmes, ensuring their quality and their world-class status.

Postgraduate research students also often teach in their universities and publish and co-publish with academic staff. The interface between teaching and research is a key component of the Humboldtian tradition of European universities, where excellent teaching is infused by innovative research. 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. Postgraduate research students are the DNA of university enterprise.

Because UK universities have been open to talent from all over the world and pick the best people, non-UK student numbers and ratios are exceptionally high at postgraduate research level. Non-UK EU nationals are 13.3 per cent of those enrolled in postgraduate research programmes, while non-EU international students are 28.8 per cent. Ratios of non-UK EU students vary, depending on the subject area, the mission and the profile of a HEI.

STEM subjects at risk

STEM subjects (defined by HESA as the physical sciences, engineering, technology, computer science and mathematics), crucial engines of the Industrial Strategy, are particularly at risk. Non-UK students account for 51.5 per cent of the 34,685 postgraduate research students in these strategic subjects, including 51.9 per cent in mathematics, 58.2 per cent in computer science and 59.1 per cent in engineering. For example, in mathematics 22.1 per cent of postgraduate research students are non-UK EU students, while another 29.8 per cent are non-UK, non-EU students (HESA, 2016-17). The Industrial Strategy relies heavily on technological transfer and other university research outputs in the STEM areas. The STEM disciplines, including computing and engineering, also have national security implications. The home supply of postgraduate STEM talent is insufficient and the non-UK numbers are vital.

View Table 1

Postgraduate research students at UK universities: where are they?

In 2016-17 (HESA), there were 85 non-UK EU postgraduate research students at ukadia universities, 440 at all MillionPlus universities, 775 in the University Alliance universities, and a large 9,615 at Russell Group universities. Another 4,065 were enrolled at the non-affiliated universities. Out of a total of 14,985 non-UK EU postgraduate research students, 64.2 per cent are enrolled at Russell Group universities, 5.2 per cent in the University Alliance, 2.9 per cent at MillionPlus universities and 0.6 per cent at ukadia universities.

The mission and research focus of an institution has direct repercussions on the number of postgraduate research students at a particular HEI. For example, in 2016-17, Birkbeck University had 85 postgraduate research non-UK EU students out of a total of 755 (full-person equivalent), the Open University had none out of a total of 550, while Imperial had 855 out of a total of 4,140 (HESA). The most prestigious UK universities, which also tend to be the most research intensive universities, have high numbers of postgraduate research students – and hence high numbers of non-UK EU and non-EU research students.

In nine universities (LSE, Cranfield, St Andrews, Oxford, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Queen Mary, Imperial and Loughborough) more than half of all postgraduate research students were international. In another 18 institutions the ratio was over 40 per cent. Overall, in 36 UK HEIs, over a third of students at postgraduate research level were non-UK, signifying on the one hand the great attractiveness of the sector to the outside world, but also its potential vulnerability in a hard Brexit. Table 2 shows that the 10 universities with the largest numbers of postgraduate research students are all Russell Group institutions. Table 3 confirms previous findings with regard to the distribution of non-UK EU students that tend to concentrate around Oxbridge, the London Russell Group universities and Scottish universities.

View Table 2

View Table 3

A full table of non-UK postgraduate researchers in UK, with data for every individual HEI, is provided below.

View Table 4


The capacity to attract high numbers of postgraduate research students is crucial for the long-term sustainability of any research intensive institution, enabling the reproduction of the next academic generation. Any faltering in the potential supply of high quality postgraduate research numbers at UK universities, where EU and non-EU international students typically account for 40 per cent or more of all postgraduate research effort, and more in the STEM subject areas, would have potentially huge consequences in the longer term.

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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