Competition for prestigious British Academy studentships for masters and PhD degrees is expected to be tougher than ever this year, writes Simon Targett.
Government cutbacks mean that Britain's premier academic society for the humanities will offer only 950 studentships, 86 fewer than last year.
Last year less than 50 per cent of students with first-class degrees received an award. Even the more well-qualified students are likely to be disappointed in 1996.
The British Academy had requested a grant-in-aid total of Pounds 19.7 million for 1996-97, a rise of Pounds 3.3 million on the previous year. It argued the sum "was very modest when set in the context of levels of funding for sciences but would have meant real benefits for the humanities". The Government has only allocated an extra Pounds 95,000, making a total of Pounds 16.5 million.
With this money, the British Academy made original predictions of just 850 awards. But a change in the phasing of the fee payments, as a result of the switch across the university sector from the three-term year to a two semester year, means that the number of awards is likely to be 950.
As recently as 1989, most awards for masters went to students without a first-class degree. But last year, the toughest so far, only 7 per cent of the 536 awards went to such candidates, and their success rate was less than 3 per cent.
John Laver, chairman of the British Academy's Humanities Research Board, set up in 1993 to administer the grant schemes in all the main arts subjects, said: "The present levels of funding for research in the humanities put at risk the nation's reputation for high-quality research and scholarship."
The HRB is setting aside some Pounds 14.1 million for postgraduate studentships. But the future of two new schemes launched this year - 40 part-time and 20 partnership awards - could be in doubt if real term cutbacks are made next year. In the current climate, the BA's original request for an overall rise to Pounds 22.6 million in 1997/98 and Pounds 25.5 million in 1998/99 looks ambitious.