PhD students flock to UK

21 Sep 2004

UK universities are now home to 4,000 Irish PhD students, which is approximately three quarters the total number of PhD students at Irish universities, according to the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU).

It is well known that many young Irish researchers choose to attend UK universities because of the more generous grants available to them, but until now the exact number was not known. The true number emerged only last week at a grants conference in the UK attended by a CHIU official.

“We were shocked by the discovery,” said Dr Conor O’Carroll, head of research at CHIU. “In one sense, there’s nothing wrong with it: it’s great that there loads of Irish people in the UK studying and probably in very good institutions and doing very well, but the question is: why are there so many? Surely we should be able to keep some of them for ourselves.”

The figures quoted at the conference related to students who are currently registered for a PhD in the UK. Asians make up the biggest grouping of students. The US is next, with approximately 10,000 students studying in the UK. Ireland, with 4,000, ranks ahead of large European countries such as France and Germany.

O’Carroll said the CHIU now intends to explore the issue in greater depth and find out, for example, what percentage of Irish students actually did their undergraduate degrees in UK universities as well as apply for their PhD there.

Commenting on the revelations, Professor John Hughes, president of NUI Maynooth, said the number of students travelling to the UK to do their PhDs has been on the increase in recent years. “We lose quite a few of our postgraduates to the UK because they have a much better funding base for postgraduates. There’s been a huge increase in stipends for PhD students in the UK over the last few years. They are now up to about £10,000 sterling, plus free fees. We’re just not competing with that.”

Hughes felt the trend had worrying implications for Ireland’s science and technology sector. “As anyone working in science knows, PhD students are the lifeblood of a research group. If you don’t have PhD students, you’re finished.”

Hughes blamed inadequate funding at Irish universities for the leakage of students to the UK. “If Queen’s University puts an ad in the paper offering PhD students £10,000 sterling plus their fees paid, that makes us the poor relations quite frankly.” A typical offer at a university in the Republic would be in the region of €4,000 to €6,000 plus a portion of fees paid, he said.

Hughes welcomed the recent OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland, which recommends that the Government fund an increase in support for PhD students by putting more money into a bursary for students.

By Brian Skelly