Cautious response to PhD loans proposal

Scientific and university bodies have reacted warily to the proposed introduction of student loans for doctoral students

June 1, 2015

The plans for £25,000 loans were unexpectedly unveiled in this year’s Budget, following the announcement of £10,000 loans for taught master’s students in last December’s Autumn Statement.

But while the master’s loans were widely welcomed, respondents to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ consultation into the loan schemes, which closed on Friday, worry that loans for PhDs could threaten existing studentships and dampen take-up of doctoral study.

The Royal Society says in its response that PhD students’ contribution to the research base is such that funding them via studentship, rather than loans, is “more appropriate…than it might be for taught higher education”.

While demand for the loans would probably be high in disciplines with large numbers of self-funded students, there is “no reason” to believe this would “correspond to national research priorities”.

The society also worries that loans could break the “nexus” between the availability of funding and the excellence of applicants. This would weaken universities’ incentive to “select only the best students” and risk a decline in “the average quality of postgraduate research students”.

It also fears that the introduction of loans might see the value of studentships to individuals decline – and, over time, see the total available funding for studentships eroded.

The Institute of Physics says that this would “probably lead to the opposite effect on demand than the policy intends, as PhD students [would] have to either take on debts where previously they wouldn’t, or self-fund more of their living costs outside their PhD”.

The institute also echoes the Royal Society’s concerns about quality, saying:Safeguards and oversight would…need to be built into a loans system, perhaps within universities or research councils, which would act to approve a student or project as eligible for a loan.”

It notes that £25,000 would not cover the full costs of a PhD. But even the availability of a loan that did so would not necessarily encourage students into PhDs given the “years of debt” they have already accrued through prior study.

The Royal Society of Chemistry stresses that loans, while welcome, should not displace existing studentships. Requiring PhD students to take out a loan “could be off-putting and risks harming the diversity of the research workforce”.

The Million+ group of post-92 universities says that it is difficult to consider the merits of the PhD loans proposals given the government’s failure to define the problem it is trying to address. But if students are unable to obtain grants under the current system…there is potential to look at those rules and regulations [instead]”, it says.

But others are more positive. The University Alliance of post-92 universities says that compared with the present funding situation, PhD loans “should be widely welcomed”, and were likely to encourage students into doctoral study.

The GuildHE group of small and specialist institutions also says that loans would “widen the pool of potential [postgraduate research students], meaning that the best students are able to undertake research degrees, regardless of their financial circumstances”. This would “improve the general quality and competitiveness of postgraduate research”.

On the master's scheme, Million+, the University Alliance and GuildHE all question the restriction of the £10,000 loans to students under 30, stressing that lack of finance is an issue for those of all ages.

They also question the exclusion from eligibility of those studying at less than 50 per cent of full-time intensity. Million+ says: “The risk is that the scheme harms flexibility of provision as institutions and students elect to study courses on the basis of the loan scheme eligibility, rather than on academic needs.”

The Russell Group said that it was not intending to circulate its response to the consultation. The British Academy said it would publish its response later in the week.



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Reader's comments (1)

As far as I can see there is no shortage of studentships for Home students in the natural and engineering sciences - we easily fund as many PhD students as we need. Others can maybe comment better on the social sciences and the humanities, perhaps there is a case for a few more studentships, but I suspect that the economy is not crying out for too many more English PhDs. So who benefits from making subsidised loans available? Most likely not the student, when they have spent three or four years amassing debt when they could have been working towards a rewarding career.