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In general, it's fairly difficult to get a funded PhD position in the UK, if you're an international student (as of a few years ago, "international" was defined as non-EU; I assume that has changed now, but I haven't lived in the UK since pre-Brexit).

From what I've seen, an international grad student in the UK basically has a few options, such as: (1) ultra-prestigious scholarships like the Rhodes scholarship, (2) external funding, e.g. from industry or their home country's government (this is common for students from many Asian countries), or (3) compete for a very small number of department or university funded positions/scholarships open to internationals.

This is very different from the situation in the US and most of continental Europe, where a PhD position always comes with a salary, and where there's typically no discrimination between domestic and international applicants.

Are there historical reasons why the UK PhD system is like this? It seems strange, especially given that the UK is a wealthy country strong in scientific research. Why don't they reform their system to better attract international talent?

(My field is physics, but I think the same is true across at least some other STEM subjects.)

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    Almost all public (i.e. state-funded) universities in the US discriminate against international applicants; this is just not made obvious. Mar 24 at 19:54
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    @AlexanderWoo That is debatable. A lot of the discrimination against foreign students is indirect, because non-US universities are less well known, and because a certain country's education system might be perceived negatively. In any case it is nowhere nearly as extreme as in the UK.
    – Aqualone
    Mar 24 at 20:00
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    @AlexanderWoo, citation required.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 20:02
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    The situation at Berkeley was (and I would think still is) the following: the department covered the tuition for all students out of its budget. Domestic students could become in-state residents and have paid on their behalf a much cheaper rate after one year; international students continued to be charged at the out-of-state rate throughout. In addition, some grant funds could only be used for domestic students. The result was that one needed much stronger test scores, grades, and recommendations to be admitted as an international student (even if you came from a US undergrad school). Mar 24 at 20:36
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    @AlexanderWoo. funding is a different issue than "discrimination". Any tax supported institution may validly want to use the majority of its funds for residents (i.e. taxpayers). That may also reflect the UK situation as well.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 20:47

3 Answers 3

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The big difference between the UK system and some other systems is that in the UK a PhD student is primarily regarded, at least by the system (even if not always be the supervisor) as a student who is there to learn, where as, at least in the EU system, PhD students are primarily regarded as researchers who are there to perform a role.

The OP asks "Why don't they reform their system to better attract international talent?". This assumes that students are regarded as something you want to attract in order to benefit the country. But officialdom in the UK regards students as people who take benefit, rather than give it. A student is receiving a service, not providing one. To a British official, asking why they don't fund overseas PhD student is the same as asking why they don't pay for the undergraduate tuition fees of international students.

So, the British government sets aside a certain amount of money each year from its education/training budget to train PhD students. As it sees its job to education British people, it would usually only pay for the PhD education of British people - it is other people's governments job to pay for the education of their own people.

All of this is at least partly related to the superiority of the Arts and Humanities in British culture as the place where real intellectuals come from - at least in the minds of those in power, who almost without fail have humanities degrees from elite universities. In the arts and humanities, this view that PhD students are not part of a research workforce is closer to the truth.

All of this should not be taken as an endorsement of this situation, which I think is terrible.

All hope is not lost though. While with the UK leaving the EU, students from the EU became international student, the government has partially offset this by saying that upto 30% of students recruited to the main government funded PhD programs (UKRI DTPs/DTCs) can be overseas students. In practice I've found that this cap hasn't been a limitation, and we've been able to admit all the overseas students that ranked high enough in open competition in our DTP.

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  • “… the self-proclaimed superiority of…” Unfortunately there’s an oversupply of demand for UK degrees (and from some other countries as well) so that international grad. students are seen as an income stream to make up for administrative overspending. Mar 27 at 13:35
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    "Self-proclaimed" is not my experience - its not the humanities PhDs themselves proclaiming their superiority, but more the gatekeepers of British society/culture, who are not generally humanities PhDs. I don't really buy into the whole two cultures thing. I also think that the tendency of universities to abuse international students as an income stream is separate from the government's decision to not fund them. Mar 27 at 17:16
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Funding of international students in the UK is a lot more difficult than places like the US because the UK research organizations (UKRI and the various research councils underneath it) have very strict rules about which type of award can and cannot support students, and how the money should be allocated to students.

The first major difference is that grants from the UK research councils (such as EPSRC/BBSRC/ESRC/etc.) can not be used to fund any student fees, so when a professor gets a new grant, they can't use it for students they have to use it for research staff (such as post-docs) [1]. This is very different from the US system, where grants from bodies like the NSF/NIH can be used to fund students.

Instead, the UK research councils have special "Doctoral training" grants and "PhD Studentships" that are meant for funding PhD students. Even these are limited though, with the current UKRI rules [2] saying that no more than 30% of the UKRI-funded portion of a cohort on a training grant (e.g. Centre for Doctoral Training, training grant programs awarded to universities, etc.) can be international students, and even then, the UKRI-provided money can only be used to cover the amount of the home fees for the student. This means that those international students still must pay the difference between the international and home fees amount (although the university can cover the difference from other sources, such as internal funding or company support).

Both of these restrictions means that the main funding source available to support PhD students in countries like the US (e.g. government grants and centers) is not easily available to support international students in the UK, forcing the reliance on the private programs and university-level programs where the individual charities/universities set the rules and not the government.

[1] RGC 4.5 in https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/UKRI-170821-FullEconomicCostingGrantTermsConditions-Aug2021.pdf

[2] https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/UKRI-170321-InternationalEligibilityImplementationGuidance.pdf

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    I think the question was why does the UK have policies that lead to this situation in general, not what are the details of the funding restrictions that lead to this.
    – gib
    Mar 26 at 8:54
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Different countries give different answers to the basic question

Why would a society (country) fund someone from outside that society for getting some academic degree?

Some of the reasons can be:

  • pure altruism,
  • seeing it as development aid (which will be politically desirable),
  • expectation that the person will stay and work for a domestic company, thus strengthening the economy,
  • strengthening the domestic research community (in international competition),
  • lack of own personnel capable of doing important research.

Alas, societies often are only willing to invest resources (money) if the can clearly see a good return-on-investment. And the UK seems to be a bit more sceptical here than other countries.

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  • This doesn't directly address the question. Also, the points you raise only partially apply since a PhD is a job in additional to being an academic course. (indeed, in some places in continental Europe, PhD positions are essentially jobs, with the degree awarded in the end being almost like a side-effect)
    – Aqualone
    Mar 25 at 12:24
  • @Aqualone See my answer, below, but I think the key point you are missing is that in the UK a PhD is not regarded as a job in addition to being an academic course. At least not in the minds of those that make the policies. Mar 26 at 23:56

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