Growing PhD funding shortfall ‘requires national debate’

V-c who chairs financial sustainability group warns that deficit on doctoral training raises major questions

June 6, 2019
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A vice-chancellor has called for a “national debate” on the future of PhD funding in the UK after new data suggested a growing financial shortfall in the training of doctoral students.

Figures published by the Office for Students show that universities in England and Northern Ireland recovered only 47 per cent of the full costs of training and supervising postgraduate research students in the last academic year.

Although it was already known that PhD training was one of the most heavily subsidised activities in universities, the shortfall has been growing: 52 per cent of the full costs of postgraduate research were recovered in 2015-16 and 50 per cent in 2016-17.

The figures come from Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac) data, which attempt to estimate the “full economic costs” of research, teaching and other university activity.

Estimates for full costs are based on allocating direct expenditure on elements such as staff and buildings to each activity while also attempting to adjust for the costs of keeping universities financially sustainable into the future.

According to the Trac data, universities in England and Northern Ireland received about £1.05 billion in income for doctoral training in 2017-18 but the full economic costs were estimated to be £2.24 billion, a deficit of £1.18 billion.

The PhD training deficit was a significant contributor to the overall shortfall in funding research, which was estimated to be £3.7 billion last year. This meant universities recovered 69.4 per cent of the full costs of research, down from 70.8 per cent the year before.

Mark Smith, the Lancaster University vice-chancellor who chairs the UK’s Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, said Trac data had “for some time” shown a deficit for postgraduate research and “that trend is worsening”.  

“There is a need for a national debate about the causes of this and the solutions,” he said.

Professor Smith also stressed it was a question that went much wider than universities given that the government’s industrial strategy relied on increasing capacity in high-tech industries that needed people qualified to PhD level.

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, echoed this by emphasising that government plans to boost the UK’s research intensity to 2.4 per cent of GDP over 10 years meant “investing in skills” as well as infrastructure.

“We can’t achieve that kind of 10-year growth without growing the ranks of researchers significantly, and that needs to include PhD students,” she said.

Trac data suggest that shortfalls like those for doctoral training are typically funded through university activity that returns a surplus, such as teaching overseas students.

However, the deterioration in the funding gap may raise questions for universities without ready access to such surpluses. Trac data by university type suggest that the more teaching-focused institutions tend to recover less than a third of the full costs of PhD training on average.

A report published earlier this year by the FSSG contained an anonymous case study of an institution where ending postgraduate research might be an “unexplored option” to deal with any financial crisis.

However, Douglas Halliday, vice-chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and director of Durham University’s Multidisciplinary Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy, said that although the data suggested a shortfall on PhD training, institutions provided it “because of the wider benefits that it offers to their institutions, to the sector and to society in general”.

“Many universities recognise that whilst the costs of doctoral education are not clear, the importance of this activity to universities and to the UK more widely will ensure that it continues,” he said.

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