Exclusive: British students outnumbered by foreign ones on postgraduate courses

Major study warns of future crisis if universities equip UK’s economic rivals with skills they need to compete against Britain

Richard Garner
Thursday 24 October 2013 15:02 BST

Foreign students have outnumbered their UK counterparts in postgraduate education at British universities for the past five years, it is revealed today.

A major study warns of a future crisis if universities equip the UK’s economic rivals with the skills they need to compete against Britain, which will suffer from a dearth of highly skilled professionals.

International student numbers have grown by 90 per cent in the past decade while the number of home-grown students has fallen by 12 per cent in the past three years.

Academics are worried that home take-up could plunge even further in 2016 when students saddled with debts from £9,000-a-year degree courses decide they cannot afford to opt for further study. In addition, figures show poorer UK students are becoming less and less likely to apply because of a lack of financial support; 17 per cent of all UK recruits have been privately educated, meaning they are 25 per cent more likely to apply for postgraduate courses than those from state schools.

The report was put together by the 1994 group of universities, which represents institutions including Essex, Sussex, and the University of London’s Birkbeck and Goldsmiths’ Colleges.

“If candidates from modest backgrounds are effectively frozen out of postgraduate study, then this means that the best jobs and enhanced career opportunities will remain the preserve of the better off,” it warns.

The report acknowledges that “on the face of it the sector looks relatively healthy” with student numbers rising by 42 per cent over the last decade.

However, it argues this masks the fact that the increase is largely down to overseas students whose numbers have shot up by 90 per cent.

By contrast, the number of UK students has risen by just 23 per cent in the same period – and fell over the past three years.

Figures show that by far the largest group of overseas students are from China – 36,290 – with India in second place with 19,495.

This compares to 149,000 from the UK in 2011-12.

“In 2002 there were four UK taught postgraduate students for every three from overseas,” it says.

“Since 2008, they have been outnumbered every year.

“Since the majority of these students will eventually return to their home countries, taking their newly gained skills, knowledge and expertise with them, this trend has consequences for the UK’s global competitiveness.”

The report goes on to warn that the number of UK students funded for their courses has dwindled in recent years – with the number receiving help from a research council halving over the past decade to just 825 in 2011-12.

Most 21 to 24-year-olds, it adds “would never have had the opportunity to accumulate sufficient savings to fund themselves through a postgraduate course”.

Today’s report is echoed by the findings of research commissioned by the Government which indicates a deficit of fewer highly skilled students coming forward – which could leave the UK without the expertise to combat growing threats such as that of cyber attacks against UK security systems.

The study for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills by the consultants Pierre Audoin said it received anecdotal evidence that courses were dependent on foreign students.

In a foreword to the publication, the Universities minister David Willetts says UK postgraduate education has a reputation for excellence across the world and has seen “unprecedented” growth in the past decade. He added the Government was investing £75m in helping universities attract and support less advantaged students.

Case study: The overseas student

Fangyan Mei is studying Media and Journalism at Newcastle University 

"I've chosen to study a postgraduate course in the UK because I needed the extra degree and training to become more competitive in such a saturated job market. In China, my home country, the press has changed greatly over the last few years.

"After completing my undergraduate degree in China studying Television and Broadcasting, I became a full time journalist writing for a newspaper. I worked hard, earned a decent salary and became the chief journalist of my newspaper. This gave me a good reputation amongst the press of Zhejiang province and one of my articles was awarded the second prize in the Zhejiang Good News Award.

"Since then I have found it difficult to develop my skills and despite being highly regarded in my field, I struggled to keep my job. I was confused, upset and worried. Despite job offers from several other companies, one a medical group and the other a digital media company which was owned by the government, I was not prepared to change career such is my passion for journalism. The only way to get a job was to have further training, so I decided to study in the UK.

"The largest expense is the tuition fee which is £13,870, despite getting a discount from Newcastle University. On top of this and the cost of living, I’ve paid for IELTS tests, my visa, aeroplane tickets and other equipment. All of this has been funded by myself, saving up over the last three years whilst working full time. My family are helping me financially in emergencies, however I hope I will not have to use their money. I will try to find a job in the UK, in the media and PR industries, however if this fails I will return to China to try and find another job as a journalist."

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