Lack of detail on PhD loan scheme signals ‘clear and present danger’

Observer fears that research council funding for postgraduate study may be cut

March 26, 2015

Loans for PhD students announced by George Osborne could be intended to pave the way for cuts to public funding for postgraduate research study, according to one observer, although the government insists that there are no plans to reduce current funding.

The Budget delivered by the chancellor on 18 March contained plans to introduce income-contingent loans of up to £25,000 for PhD and research master’s students.

“These loans will be in addition to existing funding, and designed to minimise public subsidy,” say Treasury Budget documents, which fail to give any cost for the loans or timescale for their introduction.

The loans for research postgraduates come in addition to taught postgraduate loans offering funding of up to £10,000 announced in December’s Autumn Statement, to be made available from 2016-17.

James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, said that “without more detail on how this new scheme will work, the Budget announcement signals a clear and present danger to existing PhD funding through the research councils. Indeed, rumours suggest that this is [the Treasury’s] ultimate goal here, as a way of relieving wider pressures on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the research council budget.”

Currently, PhD students who win funding are usually supported by a combination of research councils and funding via Higher Education Funding Council for England block grant.

Public support for PhDs amounted to about £633 million in 2014-15, with the research councils providing £393 million for PhDs and Hefce £240 million for postgraduate research. The research budget could be seen by BIS as offering some potential for cuts under a future government seeking further austerity, although such a move is thought unlikely by most observers.

Asked what the cost of the postgraduate research loans will be, a BIS spokeswoman said: “It’s still too early to give a figure.”

She added: “There are no plans to reduce or withdraw grant funding for postgraduate research degrees. However, we wish to widen access to the opportunities created by participating in postgraduate research.”

The spokeswoman said that the “design and terms” for postgraduate research loans will be considered after a consultation, which she said, at the time Times Higher Education went to press, would be published “shortly”. The consultation will be on support for postgraduate study generally, also covering the planned taught postgraduate loans.

Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and head of the graduate school at Plymouth University, said that the idea of income-contingent loans for postgraduate research students “on the face of it seems good”. But he argued: “As soon as you introduce a national loans scheme, the universities themselves will want to push the [PhD] fees up to get as much of that loan into the universities’ coffers [as possible].”

And Professor Fuller warned that £25,000 “won’t even pay for three years’ living costs” for PhD students, aside from fee costs.

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