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ORSAS was set up by the Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1979 to attract high-quality international students to the United Kingdom to undertake research by providing for the difference in fees charged to overseas students. The scheme is funded through the four UK higher education funding bodies (for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

This year, the four funding bodies commissioned an external consultancy group, The Knowledge Partnership, to undertake a general review of ORSAS and assess whether the scheme is still achieving its original objective and drawing the best overseas postgraduate students to the UK for study.

The report concluded that this scheme is well received by higher education institutions (HEIs) and students; HEIs are pleased to be able to choose the candidates themselves, and the majority feel the quality of the candidates is high. However, the awards only partially fulfil their objective of attracting the best students from overseas: around half the awards go to students who were already in the UK and had applied during their UK masters course, or first year of PhD. The ORSAS identity is not well recognised outside the UK, and the scheme was not viewed by students as competitive when compared with other award schemes.