Saudi Arabia is the leading international market for life sciences PhDs in the UK, according to a new analysis from London & Partners, the Mayor’s official promotional agency for London

The figures, produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, show that there were 875 Saudi Arabian life sciences PhD students in UK universities in the 2013/14 academic year, an increase of 53 per cent over the past four years. Saudi Arabia is followed by China, Germany, India and Italy as the top countries for international life sciences PhDs in Britain.

Overall there were 39,195 students studying life sciences PhDs in the UK in 2013/14, of which 12,455 were from outside the UK, 32 per cent of the total. London attracts a quarter of international life sciences PhD students, with just over 2,800 studying in the capital. Overall around 20% of all life sciences PhD students in the UK are studying in London universities.

The growth in the number of Saudi Arabian students studying life sciences reflects the country’s increasing focus on investment in education and health in the country, illustrated by an agreement signed in June 2015 by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health to sponsor 20,000 students to study abroad in the next five years.

Mahmoud Mouselli, the British Council’s Director of Programmes in Saudi Arabia, says:

“Driven by population growth, lifestyle changes and government investment, the life sciences sector is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in Saudi Arabia. The government’s investment in the sector has led to a large expansion in health education, as well as to the opening of new health schools at almost all of the 25 Saudi government universities.

“To staff these health schools and meet the increasing demand for health services, the national scholarship scheme has given strategic importance to sponsoring students to study life sciences abroad at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.”

According to Laila Noli, a PhD student at King’s College London focusing on human reproductive genetics, London is a prime destination because it is well known for its high ranking universities. However she says that the benefits are more than academic:

“Studying abroad is a unique educational and cultural opportunity that really enriches my life experiences. During my seven years in London, I have encountered new cultures, history and different lifestyles. Also by living and studying abroad, you broaden your own mind, encourage independent thinking and personality, and build self-confidence.”

Maha Bakoben, a Saudi PhD student in applied statistics at Imperial College London and founder of Imperial’s Saudi Society, adds:

“I chose to study at Imperial College because it is one of the world’s most prestigious universities and it has high quality research programs in natural sciences. London appealed because it provides a great opportunity to live in a global city and build a diverse network.”

Dr Eliot Forster, Executive Chair of MedCity, established by the Mayor of London in April 2014 to grow the life sciences economy of London and the greater south east, says:

“PhD numbers are a good surrogate for the health of our ecosystem, so I’m delighted to see that the UK’s life sciences sector is in such robust health. The mix of UK and international students is very important; the level of interest from outside the UK is a reflection of the high reputation of our world-leading universities, and the range of perspectives of students from a variety of backgrounds is a valuable addition to our labs. At the same time, it’s crucial to make sure that PhD study remains a viable option for the UK’s up and coming generation, as these students will be the backbone of our life sciences economy. These figures suggest that we’re getting that balance about right.”

Overall, the number of life sciences PhD students in UK universities has increased by 9% during three years, growing from 35,915 in 2010/11, 11,365 of whom were from outside the UK.

The top 10 non-UK nationalities of life sciences PhD students are:

Saudi Arabia – 875
China – 780
Germany – 750
India – 660
Italy – 605
USA – 580
Ireland – 470
Malaysia – 460
Iraq – 430
Greece – 400

Life sciences covers the subject areas of medicine & dentistry, subjects allied to medicine, biological sciences and veterinary sciences, as defined by HESA.