Discussing international students in STEM on Radio 4

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

You and Yours, on BBC Radio 4, devoted its programme last Tuesday (6 December) to discussing the value to the UK of international students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) here. The broadcast, which attracts an audience of around 3 million, took place following the publication of a research report by Civitas (a non-partisan think tank), which accredits the rise in STEM graduates in recent years to an influx of foreign students. Is this a problem?

Looking at data from between 1997 and 2007, the research suggests that Britain is suffering from an indirect form of brain drain. Under current immigration rules, non-EU students do not have automatic right to stay in the UK following their period of study and will move away having taken advantage of our higher education system, which is acknowledged as world class. The basic statistics are published in Civitas’ press release, but in short, the report says that we are not actually seeing a rise in home-grown STEM graduates. Civitas suggest that this puts us in a vulnerable position whereby we cannot use the knowledge-base we develop to support our own economy. (Note – Inside Higher Ed reports a similar phenomenon is occurring in the USA.)

Most of the callers to the show, however, tended to be of the opposite opinion and Stephen Clarke, the author of the report, was forced onto the back foot. We heard about the positives of having UK-trained scientists abroad, with examples such as the building of international collaborative networks and the spreading of British ‘soft power’ given as ways in which our economy benefits. The expertise of ‘UK PLC’ may also be enhanced, as our international graduates are subsequently brought back again by employers, with us benefitting from a global brain cycling. Our graduates also act as advocates for UK education, and indeed it seemed on the programme that non-EU students were queuing up to heap praise on our university courses. On the other hand, they expressed frustration with our restrictive visa policies, and many other comments to this effect were posted on the Radio 4 Facebook page. This is currently a major concern in the scientific community.

Another issue that the report raises is that we shouldn’t be talking about the increase in STEM undergraduate numbers as a success story for recruitment from UK schools, as the rise in international students accounts for so much of this trend. This may contribute to the self-perpetuating system whereby insufficient graduates become teachers to inspire our next generation. A STEM Ambassador caller pointed out that there aren’t ‘too many’ non-EU students at all (as they don’t take places ‘assigned’ to UK students), the problem is that there aren’t enough home students. He also suggested that we need to give children the ‘science bug’ at primary school in order to sustainably increase our home-grown STEM graduate base.

The debate continued as Stephen asserted that once graduates leave the UK, we don’t get long term economic benefits. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. However, where he did agree was that we have wonderful education system here, which we ourselves do not fully appreciate. Another caller noted that in some cases, overseas students are actually keeping departments from which home students can then benefit open, and the short-term cash benefit from student immigration is certainly welcome (especially in smaller university towns).

I would say that the view of our high current unemployment rate as a reason to restrict the stay of valuable international graduates does seem very short-termist. These highly skilled individuals are vital to contribute to the ‘science for growth’ philosophy, especially given their increasing proportion of the graduate pool. I hope the government agrees.

Update –  December 15 – Related article ‘Innovation strategy “ignores” funding and visas’ (Times Higher Education). A blog post on the Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth is available here.

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