Somewhere in a quiet corner of a book-lined classics library at University College London (UCL), a Brazilian research student has her nose in a text, written 2,500 years ago by the Greek historian and author Thucydides.
As you picture the scene, you might think that the researcher in question, Manuela Dal Borgo, deep in contemplation of these ancient musings, is in a place as remote from the recession-shaken realities of the 21st century as it is possible to find.
But she would contest that judgement, and argue that her work has crucial relevance to the parlous state of the world economy, given the increasing weight that scholars, including economists, are giving to Thucydides' theories on human behaviour in times of crisis. For Dal Borgo is in her first year of a cross-disciplinary PhD, straddling UCL's Department of Greek and Latin, and its department of economics, her thesis centred on a link between ancient knowledge and modern economic and behavioural science.
"It seems clear that there is a need for my study, because in times of great uncertainty and conflict, we hope that there is still something to learn from Thucydides which will be useful in the present," she says.
In admitting her to this PhD programme, Dal Borgo's superiors at UCL clearly concluded that her work was of a high calibre and potential, as she was one of a relatively small number of overseas researchers selected to receive a government-funded scholarship, from a scheme designed to attract the very best of overseas research talent to British universities. The grant she received covered her annual UCL fees, of around £13,000 as an overseas postgraduate student, and was the clincher in attracting her to London.
"I am extraordinarily lucky to have the best possible supervisors in the world for this research. But I could not be here at UCL to carry out this work if it were not for the funding," she says.
However, just as Dal Borgo was about to begin her work at UCL last year, the Government was sounding the death knell, as far as English universities are concerned, of exactly the funding programme of which she's a beneficiary, namely the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme (Orsas).
Arguing that the 20-year-old scheme "had achieved its purpose and no longer represented a high priority for public funding", the Government's higher-education funding agency, Hefce (the Higher Education Funding Council for England), announced that it would phase out the Orsas by 2011. That news sent shock waves across the higher-education landscape.
"When we got the bombshell, pretty much out of the blue, I canvassed opinion around the university," says Professor David Bogle, head of UCL's Graduate School, "and the view came back that this was disastrous."
The consensus across all faculties was that the university couldn't afford to lose the annual intake of 40 Orsas grant recipients which keeps the university at the forefront of intellectual inquiry around the world. So Bogle set about devising a plan for UCL to use its own money to replace the Orsas grants.
"I drafted a case to senior management about how we ought to be doing this, in spite of the fact that this is not the best time economically," he says.
That case has now been accepted, with UCL's announcement of a £2m fund, from its own resources, to ensure the continuation of the flow of high-quality overseas researchers such as Dal Borgo. In the short term, this will ensure that all existing UCL recipients of Orsas money will have their fees paid for the next two years – the period during which the Hefce Orsas money will be phased out.
After that, UCL has committed itself to supporting at least the same number of overseas researchers as were covered by the Orsas and, if possible, over time, to expand the programme, the qualification criteria remaining firmly focused on academic excellence.
Among senior academics heartily endorsing the decision is Professor Vince Emery, a virologist and a UCL Pro Provost with responsibility for relations with India and the Middle East, who has seen ORSAS-funded researchers working in the area of infection and immunity. Not filling the Orsas void, he argues, would have had a serious impact on UCL and its future links with academic and commercial communities abroad, he says.
"Bringing the best minds and researchers to UCL allows us to benefit from their experience and intellect," he says. "One also hopes they'll return to their countries and maintain their link with UCL, and maybe build new relationships as well."
Although UCL is the first institution to come up with a formal replacement for Orsas, it hopes other universities will follow its lead, so that the country as a whole retains its pulling power for top-class researchers, particularly given the stiff competition from the USA, where scholarships targeting the best global talent are abundant. However, the mood music in the wider higher-education community is far from optimistic in this respect.
"The market for international postgraduate research students is becoming more competitive," says Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge and all the other research-intensive red-brick institutions. "Ultimately, if we lose out in the global competition for these research students it will have a damaging effect on our universities, and subsequently our economy and society."
And while applauding UCL's move, Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, the body representing the heads of all universities in the country, maintains that the Government should, in some way, restore or replace the Orsas funding. "It is essential that the Government considers a greater level of investment in this area, in recognition of the wide range of benefits brought to the UK by these talented people," she says.
"Institutions are working hard to try to use their own limited resources to support international students, but it is essential that the Government considers a greater level of investment in this area."