Longer PhD funding means UK council will support fewer students

ESRC extends PhD support to last three-and-a-half years but rejects review’s four-year recommendation

December 6, 2021
Man hanging in the balance over a log at seaside in Scotland
Source: iStock

A UK research council is to reduce the number of students it subsidises by a tenth in order to better support those who do win PhD funding, but has rejected a recommendation to extend its doctoral grants to four years as standard.

The Economic and Social Research Council said that it would increase the duration of its PhD funding from three to three-and-a-half years, allowing all students to undertake a three-month “research in practice” placement in academia, policy, business or the third sector, designed to develop students’ transferrable skills and readiness for careers both in academia and beyond. Students will also receive three months’ additional training.

But the council rejected the recommendation of an independent review which found that the stress of having to write up a thesis before funding ran out could affect students’ mental health and urged funding to be extended to last four years.

In its response, the ESRC said that for every six months it extended funding it would be able to support 10 per cent fewer studentships overall, and that a significant reduction could have a “negative impact on the diversity of the student population”.

Instead, the council will reduce its funding for master’s training, targeting it at learners who do not already have a postgraduate qualification in the social sciences, and reallocate some of this money to support additional training at doctoral level for students who do not have a master’s.

Under the changes, master’s training will no longer be a prerequisite for doctoral funding, providing that students can demonstrate that they have gained core research skills through other forms of study and work experience. The council will also “emphasise the importance of realistically scoping projects to enable them to be completed within this [three-and-a-half year] period and moving away from a culture of an unfunded writing up year”.

In future, roughly half of PhD studentships will be for the standard three-and-a-half years and the other half will either include a master’s (one plus three-and-a-half years) or be for a longer PhD period of between three-and-a-half and four years, the ESRC said. The total number of students supported at all levels is likely to shrink by 10 per cent.

The council will also encourage doctoral training partnerships to offer ring-fenced scholarships to students from underrepresented groups.

Alison Park, the ESRC’s interim executive chair, said the changes “signal our commitment to enhancing the student experience, and to fostering a diverse and inclusive research environment”. 

“We want to nurture the capabilities needed for a changing research environment while also reflecting the range of student motivations and career aspirations,” Professor Park said. “We are excited about these changes and look forward to sharing more detail over the coming months.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles