More cash for fewer PhDs

January 21, 2000

Fewer students should pursue a PhD in the life sciences, according to an umbrella body representing 15 professional societies.

"Numbers trained should be brought closer to demand. This needs a cultural change away from a policy of maximising the numbers of PhD students being trained regardless of the scientific needs of the nation," says a report by the United Kingdom Life Sciences Committee, presented to John Taylor, director general of the research councils, this week.

The committee wants the government to cut back on student numbers to pay for a 25 per cent pay rise for PhD students. A student starting a PhD outside London this academic year will receive Pounds 6,620 from the research councils other than the Medical Research Council, which pays Pounds 7,250. The Life Sciences Committee recommended the stipend be increased to at least Pounds 9,000 tax-free.

"The research councils should aim to attract the best quality students. If the stipend is kept low, they may get the maximum number of students at the lowest price. If the research councils want the UK to retain its world-class science base, they need to offer more money to attract the best scientists," said Ken Sloan of the University of Warwick, who chaired the committee's working party on the training and financial support of postgraduate students.

Dr Sloan added that the support system for PhD students should be updated to reflect the new financial arrangements for undergraduates. For example, a graduate entering academia would take 15 years to clear a student debt of Pounds 10,000 compared with nine years in the private sector.

Low stipends also put off poorer students from pursuing a PhD, said Dr Sloan. "If people come out of university with a high level of graduate debt and if a PhD offers a low income, then that is a way of deterring people from poorer backgrounds. It works against the government's access agenda," he said.

Humanities PhDs, page 6.

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