NPC/02/06/A: HEFCE Review of the Overseas Research Students' Awards Scheme


Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme (ORSAS)

Policy review

Consultation paper 02/16

Response by the National Postgraduate Committee

On behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) I am pleased to respond to the HEFCE consultation paper on the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme. This was discussed at a meeting of the NPC held on 26 May 2002 in the University of Gloucestershire; I am also grateful to Tim Brown of the University of Surrey Students Union for surveying some of his institutions ORSAS recipients. I hope you find our comments helpful.

James Groves
General Secretary
National Postgraduate Committee


Executive summary

The ORSAS plays a significant role in: promoting UK higher education to overseas markets; giving talented junior researchers from the developing world a chance to pursue interests they would otherwise be unable to pursue; and encouraging the development of high quality research in the UK.

ORSAS funds should be distributed to institutions via the following criteria: the institutions most recent RAE ratings; indicators of the quality of research training environment within the institution; indicators of the levels of support offered to international students within the institution. Historic ORSAS success rates should not be used as a means of distributing funds.

The ORS award should be increased to the value of the full overseas postgraduate fee. There is, however, a strong case for a flat-rate ORS award if and only if institutions are required to make up any shortfall between their fee and the flat-rate ORS award.

The ORSAS should change its assessment criteria to allow prospective four-year award holders to submit applications without a detailed research proposal. The ORSAS must adapt to reflect the increase in 1+3 programmes and schemes such as the New Route PhD.


The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is the representative body for postgraduate students in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated students unions from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers unions.

Responses to specific questions

Impact and additionality of ORSAS

Is ORSAS effective in encouraging overseas students to study in the UK?

We believe so. The quality of applicants is invariably high, with plenty of competition for the places available.

Is the original policy concern that led to the establishment of the scheme still valid?

We believe it is. In the words of three current ORSAS holders:

"ORS is the only option."
"It is not easy to find alternatives."
"It was the only option that I had. University funding was conditional on getting the ORS funding."

The levels of overseas postgraduate fees continue to rise, in many cases well above inflation. While some prospective research students, in some countries, may be able to secure funding from their government or another sponsor, significant numbers of talented individuals simply cannot obtain this. The UK higher education sector must continue to recognise this fact if it is to continue to attract the best prospective research students to the UK.

What are the destinations of ORSAS graduates? Are they staying in the UK or returning to their home countries?

We have insufficient data to answer this question.

In your opinion, would successful ORS award holders have undertaken postgraduate study in the UK if the scheme had not existed?

We believe a significant proportion those for whom ORSAS was the only available option would have been unable to undertake research study in the UK if ORSAS had not existed. The majority of HEIs do not have the resources to offer strategically significant numbers of overseas research student bursaries.

Do the students attracted by ORSAS make a high quality contribution to the UK research base?

We believe they do, although it is obviously very difficult to quantify this!

Operation and value for money of the scheme

Would the drop-out rate of ORSAS award holders who cannot afford to study in the UK be reduced if ORS awards were increased to include the entire postgraduate fee?

In the words of a current ORSAS holder:

"I think the award should be the full fee. I feel the British pound is stronger, and the standard of living is higher, than in most of the countries where [ORSAS] funded students come from. It would be more attractive and likely to lift a big monetary problem for those who might be interested in doing research degrees in the UK. This is even more the case where the academic institution is not able to provide additional funding for the students."

We concur with this opinion.

Do you think the ORSAS is an effective way to spend 13 million of public money to attract high quality overseas students and promote UK research?

We believe:

(i) ORSAS plays a significant role in promoting UK higher education to overseas markets. ORSAS graduates, even if they leave the UK, often act as ambassadors for UK higher education, in many cases encouraging further prospective students to apply here.

(ii) ORSAS gives talented junior researchers from the developing world a chance to pursue interests they would otherwise be unable to pursue. It should be seen as a significant part of the UKs overseas development strategy.

(iii) ORSAS encourages the development of high quality research in the UK. Given the increased competition for researchers from the USA and the Far East, its essential the UK higher education sector does all it can to attract people here.

Should the current system of application be continued, or should we adopt a new system for distributing the funds? Should it be distributed by RAE ratings? By per cent additional research funds? Or other method, please specify.

We do not support using historic success rates of institutions (the Beynon formula) when devising formulae for distributing funds. This encourages complacency among established institutions and penalises institutions that have only recently begun to expand their research provision.

We feel the following indicators should be taken into account when distributing funds:

(i) The institutions most recent RAE ratings;

(ii) Indicators of the quality of research training environment within the institution;

(iii) Indicators of the levels of support offered to international students within the institution.

In our view the quality of a postgraduate research environment is not necessarily linked to the overall quality of research within a department, as measured by the RAE. There are many research students receiving exemplary supervision in departments rated 2 and 3b; by contrast we can think of 5* rated departments who have no more than a grudging commitment to their research students.

At the very least, we feel that institutions should have to demonstrate certain minimum standards of provision for international research students, such as those being proposed as part of the Joint Funding Councils Review of Postgraduate Research Training, in order to be eligible for funds from the ORSAS.

Do you think the administration of the scheme, as described in annex B, should be changed in any way?

We have no comments to make here.

Do you think the quota system currently in operation, which limits the number of applications each institution puts forward, should be continued in its current form? If no, please specify in what way you would like it amended.

Some of our members felt that a system of open national competition, such as is practiced by the ESRC in allocating its studentships, had much to commend it. It would ensure that talented prospective students were not excluded, at the institutional stage, in order to meet an imposed quota.

This was not a consensus view, however; other members were concerned by the increased workload that a system of open national competition would bring to the administration of the ORSAS.

Should new ORSAS awards be available to students to enter the second year of study if they have already successfully completed their first year in the UK?

We strongly believe they should.

Introduction of a flat-rate award

Do you think the ORS awards should be made on a flat-rate basis, that is, with each award being worth the same amount?

As weve already mentioned, we feel on balance that ORS awards should be for the full value of the overseas fees. There is, however, a strong case for a flat-rate award if institutions are required to make up any shortfall between their fee and the flat-rate ORS award, since it would then be possible to offer more ORS awards each year.

If yes then:

(i) Do you think that institutions charging higher than the flat rate should make up any shortfall between the ORS award and their UK/international fee differential?

We strongly believe that any institution charging a high international fee should be required to make up any shortfall between its fee and the value of an ORS award. This is in the institutions interest, since many prospective ORSAS students simply wouldnt apply if they had to make up any shortfall, as well as the overall interests of the sector.

(ii) Do you think that students attending institutions that charge more than the flat rate fee should make up the shortfall between the ORS award and the rest of the international fee?

We strongly oppose this.

(iii) Do you think the decision of whether the student or institution funds the shortfall should be left to the discretion of individual higher education institutions?

We strongly oppose this.

Potential impact of four-year PhD courses on the ORSAS

Should the ORSAS Committee change the assessment criteria for applications wanting to follow four-year PhD courses, making it possible for them to submit applications without research proposals?

We believe the ORSAS Committee should indeed change its assessment criteria. The ORSAS must adapt to reflect the increase in 1+3 programmes and schemes such as the New Route PhD; these developments are, after all, partly due to market pressure from prospective overseas students wishing to undertake such schemes in the UK.

In the words of a current ORSAS holder:

"I think it is a great idea to have a 1+3 option. It helps the student ease into a research PhD by learning more of the intermediate to advanced stuff in the MSc."

Should students with ORS awards following four-year PhD courses be allowed to renew their awards for up to three times (rather than the current maximum of twice) in order to secure ORSAS funding for their entire course?

We believe this would be sensible and logical.

Do you have any suggestions as to how the ORS Committee could amend the existing selection criteria to allow for the different needs of applicants following a 1+3 or 4-year PhD programme?

As a suggestion: ORSAS applicants would first apply for entry to a 1+3 scheme. Each application would be based on research potential rather than a detailed research proposal. After one year, the ORS holders institution would need to approve a more detailed research proposal in order that the ORS holders award be renewed.