PhD loans: the wrong carrot?

Paul Wakeling and Adél Pásztor consider the alternatives

May 28, 2015
David Humphries illustration (28 May 2015)
Source: David Humphries

This week marks the closure of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ consultation on postgraduate loans, but it is not clear to us that all the responses will be as positive as the department may be expecting.

Loans of up to £10,000 for taught master’s study, announced by the chancellor in last December’s Autumn Statement, are likely to be widely welcomed. The loans scheme is a response to direct calls for such funding from several bodies, including Universities UK, the National Union of Students and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Indeed, the proposed loans closely mirror plans already outlined by the thinktanks CentreForum and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

But what of loans for doctoral study? Their announcement in the Budget took many – including us – by surprise. The headline maximum figure of £25,000 is eye-catching and the absence of subject restrictions continues the departure, first seen in the master’s loans proposal, from the default Treasury emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. This, like the pledge not to displace existing doctoral funding, is welcome. But further details are sketchy. It is unclear, for example, whether postgraduate research loans would, like master’s loans, be restricted to those under the age of 30. And the lack of public clamour for a PhD loan scheme may indicate that there is actually little need for it.

There is certainly less apparent appetite for self-funding at PhD level. Figures reported in BIS’ consultation document indicate that just over a third of UK research degree entrants are self-funding, compared with three-quarters of new UK master’s students. Beyond that, what evidence is there about the role of funding in attracting talented graduates to postgraduate research?

Our work is one of only a few British studies to examine access to the PhD, including the role of funding in graduates’ decision-making. We interviewed 53 graduates in-depth about their post-graduation choices. About half our sample were enrolled on a PhD; the others had not enrolled despite being qualified to do so. We found that many graduates, including some academic high-flyers, rejected the idea of a PhD on grounds other than finances. Some had simply had enough of studying and wanted to “get out into the world and do something”. Others, with only a tinge of economic rationalism, saw a PhD as a little frivolous. To them, it was an indulgence that would distract them from the next stages of adulthood, such as establishing a career and buying a house.

Debt itself did not loom large as a deterrent for our interviewees. Many saw state-provided loans as a fact of modern student life and palatable compared with commercial debt. Few participants mentioned accumulated undergraduate debt as a barrier to further study – although our interviewees graduated under lower tuition fee regimes than the class of 2015.

Studentships, by contrast, were highlighted time and again as critical in enabling doctoral study. For most interviewees, winning or being granted a studentship was a signal that they were up to the task of doctoral study, and, for a few, this was the carrot that convinced them to do a PhD. In addition, while many of our sample were willing to endure financial hardship for a year of master’s study, three years was too much even for the most privileged graduates. Students lucky enough to hold a studentship already felt that they were forgoing higher earnings elsewhere, but accepted the sacrifice in order to pursue their love of research. Hence, we remain unconvinced that repayable loans worth less than half the value of a research council studentship will succeed in attracting additional talented graduates to postgraduate research.

Most of our interviewees, including those already doing a PhD, thought of the qualification primarily as a gateway to an academic career. Unsurprisingly, a common reason for not considering doctoral study was a lack of ambition to be an academic. By the same token, only a few PhD students thought of pursuing a non-academic career afterwards, sometimes as a second choice if they were unable to secure a university post. But, as frequently seen in these pages, there is already a reserve army of academic labour, often caught in a cycle of contingent jobs and underemployment. PhD loans could lengthen this job queue and increase the debt levels of those waiting in it.

If the rationale for doctoral loans is to increase the supply of doctoral graduates, perhaps a more fundamental “hearts and minds” campaign is required to highlight the broader benefits of the PhD before funding is addressed. And if PhD graduates are in demand in the labour market, then perhaps it is to employers, rather than individuals, that the government should turn for the funding.

Paul Wakeling is senior lecturer in education at the University of York. Adél Pásztor is lecturer in sociology at Newcastle University.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: The wrong carrot? (28 May 2015)

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