Analysis: PhD: Poverty, Hardship, Debt

September 21, 2001

The country will suffer if potential PhDs are not helped out of the red. Claire Sanders reports.

Student debt is driving away PhD students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, according to a report from the British Academy out today.

"Unless the PhD intake is sufficient, in number and quality, sectors such as management, business services, and the cultural and heritage industries - government itself - will suffer," said Bob Bennett, chairman of the graduate studies review committee.

The chief recommendation in the report is to waive student debt for those entering academic life. Professor Bennett said: "This is the largest signal that would help to counteract the incentive effects of the growing number of golden hellos and traineeship grants offered by the private sector."

He said that the cost, given the number of students involved, would be relatively small.

"Those who are staying on to undertake PhDs are predominantly those who can support high levels of debt," says the report. The situation can only get worse, it continues. "The first cohort to have been affected by the abolition of the maintenance grant for the full duration of their undergraduate studies will not graduate until 2002," it warns.

The review was launched in July last year after concern that the best students were abandoning graduate study and that the arts, humanities and social sciences were being ignored in government initiatives in favour of science and technology. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and other sources were collated and 721 heads of department responded to a survey.

The subjects most drastically hit by the fall in the numbers of PhD students are accountancy, business and management studies, economics, education, European languages, law and creative and performing arts.

"The enormous response we received from universities to our survey reflected the strength of feeling on this issue," Professor Bennett said. "If measures are not put in place to entice students into academia, then the intellectual and economic health of the nation will be jeopardised."

The review set out to answer seven questions:

Is there a problem in attracting good-quality PhD students?
Yes. While the number of first-year full-time research students in the arts, humanities and social sciences has climbed, this is accounted for mainly by more European Union and overseas students. In 1994-95, 57 per cent of full-time first-year research students in the arts and humanities were from the United Kingdom. By 1998-99 this had fallen to 47 per cent.

For some subject areas the picture is worse: less than one in ten PhD students in financial management in 1998-99 was from the UK; and less than one in five in economics. Numbers have also fallen. In this period, the number of UK research students in economics fell by 23 per cent and in politics by 12 per cent.

While the number of part-time masters students rose by 19 per cent between 1994-95 and 1998-99, there has been no comparable increase in the number of part-time research students - with just a 1 per cent increase in this time. In economics the number of part-time students fell by 42 per cent.

Heads of departments said they were finding it hard to recruit good-quality PhD students, with accountancy, modern languages, economics and business and management studies reporting the most difficulties.

This problem of recruitment is reflected in the decline in demand for Economic and Social Research Council and Arts and Humanities Research Board postgraduate awards. At the ESRC the number of applications fell by a quarter between 1993 and 2000. Applications to the AHRB have been falling since 1996.

Is there evidence that the quality of the postgraduate research student recruited in the future might change?

Yes. There has been a fall in the proportion of students with first-class degrees who undertake further study. The problem is acute for business and management studies, financial management and communications.

Are there enough PhD students to replenish the academic profession, meet the needs of the economy and sustain the intellectual health of the nation?

No. "The current level of PhD students in many subjects is inadequate to replenish the academic profession, while maintaining a reasonable supply of highly qualified researchers to the economy as a whole," the report says.

Subjects in trouble include: education, where the number of retirements is due to rise rapidly, accountancy, business and management studies, media and communications, French, German and Spanish, and creative and performing arts.

The report says that there is debate about the number of PhD students needed to replenish the academic profession and meet the needs of other careers. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has put the figure at one PhD for every 100 graduating students to replenish the academic profession. The report argues that this is too low.

What factors are acting as incentives or disincentives to potential PhD students?

Debt - both accumulated debt from undergraduate study and prospective debt from postgraduate work. The situation can only get worse, as the first students to go through higher education since maintenance grants were totally abolished will not graduate until 2002. The impact in the humanities and social sciences is acute as many of these postgraduates are self-funding.

The report says that "there are strong indications that a self-selection of students is occurring at the PhD recruitment stage of those willing or able to bear the continuing high levels of debt. We fear that this will cause further decline in the quality of doctoral students and hinder efforts to increase social inclusiveness."

There are not enough studentship awards, and those that are awarded are too low. "While the recent announcement by the government of an increase in grant levels to £9,000 by 2003 is welcome, this is insufficient. A grant level that is attractive in comparison with other career paths needs to be £12,000," the report says.

In the survey of heads of department, 84 per cent said they believed that debt had prevented many students starting a PhD.

In 1994-95, 31 per cent of research students were self-funding. By 1998-99, this figure had risen to 35 per cent. The comparative figures for the sciences were 11 and 10 per cent.

Universities are the single largest source of funding for first-year full-time UK research students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, funding 17 per cent of these students in 1998-99.

The report warns against Higher Education Funding Council for England proposals to modify its funding methods to remove incentives to recruit research staff and students in favour of investment in research infrastructure.

"Monies paid from the QR (quality-related) formula in respect of research students should be used flexibly to supplement institutional support for research students (for example, in return for teaching). We would not wish thisI indirect source of support for research students to be reduced," the report says.

Postgraduates are further handicapped as they cannot apply for student loans or career development loans.

Is there a problem in attracting or retaining academic staff?

Business studies, economics, psychology, law and education are finding it difficult to recruit academic staff. In most of these areas the salary levels that graduates can obtain in the commercial or public sector are far higher than they are in academia.

There is also some evidence that the number of staff leaving UK higher education to go to the EU or overseas is rising. The numbers leaving the UK were higher in 1996-97 and 1998-99 than in 1994-95. The biggest single reason for leaving is, however, retirement.

Is there any evidence that the quality of staff recruited in the future may change?

Yes. The survey of heads of department shows they believe the academic profession is no longer attractive to potential PhD students, especially since they are increasingly carrying heavy debts.

The difficulties in obtaining a career-track academic post after completion of PhDs, low starting salaries and low rates of progression all deter prospective students.

The median starting salary for someone with a first degree in 2000 was £18,500. In the survey of heads of department, the mean starting salary proposed for academics was £21,854.

Are there any specific fields that are endangered by recruitment and retention problems, and are there any emerging fields that have specific recruitment and retention problems?

Many areas in the arts, humanities and social sciences give grounds for concern. "Economics, financial management, business and management studies, accountancy, modern languages, law, psychology and education appear to be currently experiencing difficulties recruiting sufficient postgraduate research students or academic staff," the report says.

It adds: "There is good reason to fear that expertise in these areas will soon be lost, with serious implications for teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels as well as for research."

There are also a number of emerging subjects in trouble, e-commerce and geographical information systems in particular.

A systematic problem, resulting from the shortage of quantitatively trained researchers was also raised by several different subjects within social sciences.


The British Academy's call for change

First priority

* Allow the phased waiving of student debt. Academic and other research salaries will rarely recoup the income forgone over the PhD training period, the report says. It concludes: "In view of the recent government announcement that it is considering whether postgraduate trainee teachers in shortage subjects should have their student loans written off over a ten-year period, provided that they stay in the teaching sector, we would argue that similar measures should be considered to boost academic recruitment, particularly in shortage areas."

Other priorities

* Increase the level of stipend for PhD students and keep it under review. "The stipend level needs to be increased to £12,000 at current prices (outside London), more or less in line with that already paid by the Wellcome Trust"

* Allow postgraduates to apply for student loans

* Introduce more flexibility and special initiatives targeted at important endangered and emerging subjects. These measures include earmarked funds for areas of national needs and support for collaborative training programmes in shortage subject areas

* Improve academic pay and conditions. The report says: "The evidence of our review suggests that the starting salary and subsequent progression act as a particularly strong disincentive to entry to graduate training. We believe that the starting salary needs to be increased to £22,000 to be sufficiently attractive"

* Develop greater flexibility in the support of research students and new schemes to support part-time students

* Increase the number of postdoctoral fellowships

* Improve the marketing of postgraduate opportunities and research careers

* Ensure that there is comparability between the grant levels for masters and PhD awards in the humanities

* Increase the number of awards available

* Protect institutional support arrangements for research students

* Review the subject classifications for national data on higher education

* Monitor the impact of changes in preparation for undergraduate studies.

Review of Graduate Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences is available on the British Academy website.

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