Warnings have been issued about the future recruitment of British PhD students after the director of a doctoral training centre said he was struggling to recruit because of research council funding cuts.
Paul Weaver, director of an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council centre for doctoral training at the University of Bristol, said that the resulting low levels of pay for PhD students could not compete with graduate salaries in engineering.
Other CDTs surveyed by Times Higher Education reported a mixed picture in terms of recruitment, but one director said that the low rate of PhD pay was a “ticking time bomb” that might discourage UK students from applying.
The EPSRC stopped centres from using research council money to offer students enhanced stipends in the latest round of CDT funding as part of a series of cost-cutting measures. It used the savings to fund further centres.
The Bristol centre in advanced composites for innovation and science, created in 2009, had been able to offer an enhanced contribution of £3,000 on top of the EPSRC base-rate stipend to help attract students in previous years.
“We have been asked to cut back too much,” Professor Weaver said. So far this year, he has had just four UK engineering students with first-class honours apply for seven places, when he would usually have 20-25 applicants at this stage in the cycle.
International applications, meanwhile, are double that of previous years, at almost 80. He said: “There is a more buoyant job market for graduates…We need to enhance stipends to attract the talent.”
Professor Weaver warned that if centres end up reducing the number of studentships, industry may rethink its contribution towards PhD funding.
Rob Miller, co-director of a CDT in gas turbine aerodynamics at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Loughborough, said he was hoping to top up base-rate stipends for students at his centre with contributions from industry and was so far finding recruitment “very positive”.
But he warned that there could be trouble ahead as students start to graduate with more debt than ever before. He said: “No one has connected the dots that students are a lot poorer and we are not offering them any more to stay on – it’s a time bomb in the next few years.”
“You do not want academia to become the privilege of the rich,” he added. Dr Miller said that in order to get the maximum number of CDTs, the EPSRC funding per student was “very low”.
At the University of Leicester, Hongbiao Dong is also having trouble recruiting students to his CDT in innovative metal processing, where he is director. But he said the problem was not the value of stipends but that his area of engineering is “not very attractive to students”.
Professor Dong said that in his experience the opportunities for career development and jobs are more important for students than the stipend. He said that the “difficult thing” was recruiting home students because “engineering has a lower profile in the UK than other countries”. Professor Dong began recruitment in April and has so far had three home students and more than 50 overseas students apply for the 16 places on offer.
However, some CDTs reported no change in their recruitment patterns. Myungshik Kim, director of the CDT in controlled quantum dynamics at Imperial College London, said the split between UK and overseas applicants was about the same as last year.