This question is specifically aiming at the UK PhD admission system.

Having spent roughly 6 years in the UK - 2 years A-Level and 4 years undergraduate, I am now moving forward into applying for PhD programs. To my surprise, I discovered that I would have to face a lot of difficulties regarding my eligibility for funding.

Most of the funding I applied for were strictly 'UK/EU citizens only', and it is rare to have full funding for international students. I have applied to a lot of places, and received a lot of responses in the form of "... you are a good match, but I don't have funding for overseas students...".

Having chosen the UK to study with the belief that 'as long as I am competent I should be qualified for the job', the reality has really slapped back at me.

Why such discriminations are allowed in a developed country like the UK? I made this claim knowing little to nothing about the US or other countries' systems, but lots of my friends having applied to EU PhDs received their offers without being asked whether they are 'caucasians' or not.

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    Were the funding declined because you said you were not "caucasian"? If the reason was citizenship and not race, that last comment is superfluous.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 10:03
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    This question is pretty much a rant, but as you have received a useful answer (and I think there is indeed an important question for international students in the UK here), I decided against voting to close.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 10:55
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    A very simplified explanation: because the money for that funding is provided by the taxpayers of that country. The citizens of that country have to pay taxes, part of which goes to education. Some percentage of the taxes are used to fund international students, but not all. Calling that discrimination looks like someone who was barred from entering a movie theater without buying a ticket, and called discrimination when other people, who have bought tickers, are let in.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 11:26
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    This is not 'discrimination' in the eyes of UK law, because citizenship is not a protected characteristic. Also, being in the UK purely for education is explicitly excluded from measures of time spent living in the UK, so how long you have been here is irrelevant. Also, the US is no different - there were jobs I couldn't get because I'm not a US citizen, and some where I suspect it had an indirect effect even if it wasn't an explicit requirement.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 11:34
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    -1. For the accusation of "discrimination". If there was no distinction between "citizen" and "non-citizen", then citizenship would not exist. That's not, for better or worse, how human society works. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 12:31

6 Answers 6


I wrote a pretty extensive response on this a little while ago: here and also this may be slightly relevant.

The short version is: Because they can be, and because they have to be. UK universities make money off international students; their funding is limited, and it is designed to go to domestic or European students. The funding bodies will only fund domestics because a) they're probably not allowed to fund anyone else; b) it's in their best interests to fund domestics; c) one international PhD scholarship would be equal to 2 or 3 domestic ones.

There is also the over-arching idea in the UK governmental system that students are supposed to bring in money, not take it. This idea has spiked in magnitude in the past few years.

The UK government limits the funding given to universities, and universities make up for that with international fees. We are essentially cash cows, outside the rare scholarships that are extremely competitive (Rhodes, Fullbright - the second of which neither of us is eligible for).

You also can't go for the option of naturalisation based on the time you've been in the country because -- you guessed it -- time as a student doesn't count.

Source: Same situation as you, left friends, home, and partner to do PhD in France after 5 years in Britain. I had many PhD acceptances, but none of the universities could fund me and we spent months looking at every option. Unless you're rich and you can self-fund (or you're happy to take out loans), it's unfortunately not very doable right now.

You should also keep in mind that, as a student at the end of your education, you are unfortunately likely to be targeted by the immigration police. I would advise you to not do anything like overstay, but also to not leave the UK once you have graduated until you're ready to move away before the expiry of your tier 4 visa -- because you will not be allowed back in even if your visa has months of validity on it. It happened to me. This is unrelated to your question, but it's a warning I think not enough people in our situation get.

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    @QuangThinhHa OK, then I'm sorry but between your graduation ceremony and your visa expiry (should be 3 mos later) you can't leave if you need to be able to get back. This isn't explicitly stated in the rules anywhere, but it is the case as told to me by the border patrol agents when I was detained. You won't be let in again. You are expected to pack up and leave at the first opportunity, essentially, and by leaving you are waiving the remaining days of your visa, as long as the date of your graduation ceremony has already passed. So you could go to Rio, but you'd have to go elsewhere after. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 9:22
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    Ultimately, many PhD programmes in the UK are funded by the UK government through the research councils. The UK government has no particular interest in funding foreign students who will be expected to leave the country at the end of their studies. They would rather be educating British citizens, but they aren't allowed to discriminate against EU citizens (who would be allowed to stay in the UK afterwards, anyway).
    – Simon B
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 10:37
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    You really need to explain what you mean by one international PhD scholarship would be equal to 2 or 3 domestic ones. WRT cost (why!?), WRT expected outcome (WHY?!).
    – Ghanima
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 11:40
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    @Ghanima cost, because PhD funding covers tuition fees and the host University would look to levy the international fees for a non-EU student
    – Phil
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 13:02
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    @User001 University tuition in the USA is a state, not federal, matter. Often residents of the state get a favorable rate compared to non-residents. Funding sources may be restricted. For example, "Those who do not hold United States citizenship, national, or permanent resident status by the application deadline." are not eligible for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 15:46

In addition to the other answer, I think a big problem you are facing is that you and the UK government do not having matching expectations of what a PhD student position is. You say:

Having chosen the UK to study with the belief that 'as long as I am competent I should be qualified for the job', the reality has really slapped back at me.

In terms of UK education policy, and as I understand it, a position as a PhD student is not a "job" like being a lawyer or gardener. It's a funded educational program, where the country partially or wholly pays for your training. As the UK is spending this money, they want this benefit to go primarily or exclusively to UK citizens (and EU citizens, arguably mostly because they have to). Whether this is a good policy or a bad one is really not a question that is easy to answer, but this is fundamentally the reason for the hardship you are facing.

That being said, you are not out of options. You can:

  • Find a position in the UK that is funded via European money (e.g., H2020 or ERC) or industry funding, rather than UK funds. Those should pretty much always be freely assignable even to PhD students.
  • Move to any other country in the European Union. No other major country that I am aware of (including Germany, Switzerland, France, and Sweden) has similar restrictions, and a master from a good UK university should open up this possibility for you.
  • Unfortunately a EU funded project in the UK will probably not work, as the PhD funding is a fixed amount and only covers domestic University fees and not international ones.
    – Avelina
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 21:16
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    @Avelina I am not sure whether that is right. Universities / departments can set their own cost rate in H2020 projects, and I see no reason why a rational department would set a rate that limits them in what students they can put onto the position (also I know a few international students in UK universities that work on European projects).
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 21:32

Here's an alternative way of looking at it:

Education is one of the UK's main exports.

The aim is to sell education to those from other countries, not to give them money and education. You might not agree with that, but it's the current situation.


UK research councils cannot and indeed do not discriminate only by nationality. Eligibility mostly depends instead on residence. See for example ESRC's summary .

In general, people who have been ordinarily resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for research council studentships, regardless of their nationality/citizenship. Note, the caveat that for non-EU citizens, time spent in the UK for the purpose of full-time education does not count towards this.

As a result, not only are a large number of non-EU citizens eligible for studentships. But also, there are some Brits, who, having live abroad, are not eligible.

As others have said, the reason for restricting funding in this way is that the Government view PhD studentships as an investment in the UK and so limit their availability. Various pieces of UK and European law shape the restrictions into the (somewhat complicated) form you see.

Applying limits to tax-payer funded studentships in this way is not unique to the UK, here is a similar example from Chile , that requires the applicant 'Ser chileno/a o extranjero/a con permanencia definitiva en Chile' -> 'To be Chilean or a foreigner with permanent residency in Chile'. While, in the USA, the NSF Graduate Research fellowship program requires applicants to 'be a US citizen, US national, or permanent resident'.


Some answers already point in this direction, but I think this will bring more clarity.

Residence in a country entails having a series of rights and obligations. For example the payment of VAT that non-residents can recover when they leave the country. Access to public health or social benefits .. and the same with education.

Citizens of European Union have mutually recognized rights, so that citizens of an European country have certain rights as if they were residents. In other cases you just have to comply some small formalities to obtain these rights (eg request European health card when they are in transit).

They don't need special permits to work or fix residence, etc.

Overseas citizens do not have the same rights, maybe they need to fix residence before applying for a job, a travel visa, vaccination or whatever. And same applies to UK or European citizens when travelling abroad.

Edit: someone mentioned Spain.

Prerequisites for obtaining fundings in universities in Spain are:

Being Spanish, or possessing the nationality of a Member state of the European Union. In the case of Union citizens or their families, beneficiaries of the rights of free movement and residence will be required to have the status of permanent residents or proving to be employed or self-employed. These requirements shall not apply for obtaining scholarship tuition. In the event of non-EU foreigners, the provisions shall apply the rules on rights and freedoms of foreigners in Spain and their social integration.



Is there any country whose tax-funded universities do not differentiate between foreign and domestic residents (and others defined as equivalent to domestic for educational purposes, under specific international treaties such as EU membership, or student exchange agreements)? The UK is hardly alone in this practice.

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    France. Source: I got the same funding as any French or EEA person would get, and I'm American. And this is for a government stipend. I think Germany and most of Europe is like this. And I know that Australia is not like this. Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 10:32
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    Do they treat internationals, applying from abroad, the same as domestic students for purposes of admission (if the program is selective)? Admitting a limited number of foreigners and giving them the same level of funding as domestic residents is done at some schools in the US and UK, but this is not the same as treating everyone equally.
    – zyx
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 12:32
  • In my experience, yes, the same. I interviewed in the same place and on the same day as everyone else did, drawn from the same funding pot. Also in France AFAIK they actually have to interview every single candidate, so there isn't shortlisting/selection as such. Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 12:52
  • That's consistent with the internationals competing for a more limited number of places. By selection I mean admission selection; is the probability of admission the same for identically qualified foreign and domestic applicants. It could be that there is an absolutely level playing field where if the program accepts 50 applicants per year, and 80 percent of the most qualified applicants are from outside France (or EU, French former colonies, etc), then 40/50 accepted will be foreigners. But that would be a very unusual arrangement, if it really exists anywhere on a large scale.
    – zyx
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 15:15
  • I was told that the nationality was not taken into account at all, but I don't have a specific source about that. Just that "The way the grants are awarded is transparent and is based essentially on the academic merit. After a pre-selection based on the evaluation of the electronic or paper document, an oral presentation is done by the candidate." bit.ly/1N9WfUc i'll keep looking, maybe i can find something else Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 7:46

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