Foreign students dominate “vital subjects” in the UK (and beyond)

The heightened dependence of select disciplines, universities, higher education systems, and labour markets in key sectors, upon foreign students and/or graduates, has become a very topical subject of discussion over the last ten years. For example in the USA the higher education system (especially the fields of Science and Engineering) is so dependent upon graduate students that there is now a cottage industry of organizations preparing lobbying or analytical reports about this dependency, often laden with insightful figures and narratives of concern. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has done a very good job of highlighting this theme with analytical initiatives and funded research that track changes over time on a myriad of levels (e.g., see Science and Engineering Indicators from which the graph in this posting is drawn).

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The theme of foreign student dependency is often linked to debates about the changing global geographies of R&D (e.g., see Demos’ Atlas of Ideas initiative, or UNCTAD’s fascinating 2005 report on the globalization of R&D). Silicon Valley is an exemplar space of such dependency cum articulation. This has been highlighted by numerous analysts, most notably by the geographer/planner AnnaLee Saxenian in her book The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy. A 2006 National Public Radio interview nicely summarizes Saxenian’s arguments for anyone curious about her main findings.

Needless to say we will be highlighting themes related to the global geographies of student mobility and territorial (inter)dependencies in future postings on this blog. For example, today’s Financial Times reports that:

Fewer than one in three postgraduates studying subjects considered vital to the country’s economic health come from the UK, research shows today.

According to a study by Universities UK, the body that represents the higher education sector, 71 per cent of students studying the subjects at postgraduate level in British universities are from outside the UK.

They are particularly dominant in engineering, chemistry, computer science and genetics.

Universities are less reliant on foreign students to fill undergraduate places. However, the strategically important subjects have higher levels of enrolment from abroad than is generally the case – particularly in engineering and technology, agriculture and some aspects of biological sciences.

The Guardian also has a story (bluntly titled “Overseas fees bailout colleges“) today about the Universities UK report. See here for a link to download the 96 pp. report.

While we can debate the issue of how “vital” is defined in the UK and elsewhere, there is no denying the fact that new geographies of student mobility (especially at the graduate level), and then subsequent labour market shifts, are occurring. These new geographies are also articulating with and underlying intra-university disciplinary composition shifts.

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