New funding for UK postgrads?

UK postgraduate education is critically dependent upon international students, but risks severe damage if overseas demand falters.

This is a key conclusion of the first report from the Higher Education Commission, a new UK body with cross-party political support and backing from the British university sector.

Since 1999, the number of postgraduate students from outside the European Union at British universities has grown by more than 200 per cent. The figure for UK and other EU students is just 18 per cent.

This growth has been made possible, says the Commission, by a big increase in international funding for study in the UK. For example, the Brazilian, Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments all put significant sums into sending students abroad, and the UK is a favourite destination.

One UK university vice chancellor told the Commission that postgraduate provision in subjects such as medicine and electronics would not be feasible without income from foreign students.

This raises two big problems. One is that overseas demand could dry up, making much UK of the UK’s postgraduate provision uneconomic. Improved offerings in China and elsewhere could reduce the numbers of postgraduates coming to the UK.

The other issue is that in its present form, UK postgraduate education does too little to expand the skills of the UK’s own workforce.

One way to increase domestic demand for postgraduate education would be to make government funding available for postgrads. However, this would be a big step at a time of falling government spending.

At the report’s launch event in Parliament, Graham Spittle, chief technology officer of IBM Europe and chair of the inquiry, called for a government review of ways to get more money into UK postgraduate education. This could involve a blend of public and private lending. At the moment, most postgraduates have to fund themselves, or get money from friends, families or employers.

Spittle also pointed out that current government plans to reduce immigration threaten this successful area of the British economy. At the moment, students are counted as immigrants even if they do not want to stay beyond their study period. This means that political pressure to reduce immigration threatens universities’ ability to bring in students.

In addition, the Commission notes that UK has made it harder than before for students to work in the UK after completing their course. This makes it less likely that the UK will benefit from educating them.

David Willetts, UK science and universities minister, told the event that while the idea of government funding for postgraduate education is an appealing one, such cash would come with a political cost. He said: “As soon as the Exchequer is contributing, it has a legitimate public interest in how the money is being used. That can get fraught.”

This is the first of a planned series of Higher Education Commission inquiries. The next may look at private sector higher education.

The report is at John O’Leary, a member of the Advisory Board for the QS World University Rankings, is a member of the Commission.

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