31 August 2018
by Ludovic Highman

Hard Brexit – The risk to postgraduate research

Dr Ludovic Highman and Professor Simon Marginson look at the risk to postgraduate research posed by a hard Brexit in University World News.

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

This misses the diversity of higher education institutions, 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 higher education institutions are highly dependent on them.

A kaleidoscope of institutions

Not all higher education institutions 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 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 of London specialises in evening higher education.

This diversity has crucial implications in terms of universities’ ability to win substantial European Union 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 higher education institutions, with the established hierarchy of institutions already securing the lion’s share of national funding and maintaining their position.

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% of those enrolled in postgraduate research programmes, while non-EU international students are 28.8%. Ratios of non-UK EU students vary, depending on the subject area, the mission and the profile of a higher education institution.

STEM subjects at risk

STEM subjects (defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency or HESA as the physical sciences, engineering, technology, computer science and mathematics), crucial engines of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, are particularly at risk. Non-UK students account for 51.5% of the 34,685 postgraduate research students in these strategic subjects, including 51.9 % in mathematics, 58.2% in computer science and 59.1% in engineering.

For example, in mathematics 22.1% of postgraduate research students are non-UK EU students, while another 29.8% are non-UK, non-EU students, according to HESA’s 2016-17 figures.

The UK’s 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.

Destinations of incoming research students

In 2016-17, according to HESA, there were 85 non-UK EU postgraduate research students at United Kingdom Arts and Design Institutions Association (ukadia) universities, 440 at all MillionPlus universities, 775 in University Alliance universities and a large 9,615 at Russell Group universities. Another 4,065 were enrolled at non-affiliated universities.

Out of a total of 14,985 non-UK EU postgraduate research students, 64.2% were enrolled at Russell Group universities, 5.2% in the University Alliance, 2.9% at MillionPlus universities and 0.6% at ukadia universities.

The mission and research focus of an institution has direct repercussions on the number of postgraduate research students at a particular higher education institution.

For example, in 2016-17, Birkbeck 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 College London 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. The 10 universities with the largest numbers of postgraduate research students are all Russell Group institutions.

In nine universities (London School of Economics and Political Science, Cranfield, St Andrews, Oxford, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Queen Mary, Imperial College London and Loughborough) more than half of all postgraduate research students were international. In another 18 institutions the ratio was more than 40%.

Overall, in 36 UK higher education institutions, more than 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 to a hard Brexit.

Damaging the research eco-system

The UK research eco-system relies on postgraduate research student numbers for its continuity and survival. Research-intensive and research-led higher education institutions 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.