PhDs lose out to jobs market

May 15, 1998

PHD ADMISSIONS to several of Britain's top research universities appear to have dropped dramatically in the past two years.

A buoyant jobs market, student debt and low stipends are among the reasons cited for a stabilisation in admissions at some universities and a sudden decline at others after years of growth.

Figures are hard to compare because of different ways of collecting data. Some universities register MPhil students planning to continue to PhDs as MPhils, while others do not.

However, of the 17-strong Russell group of research universities, PhD and MPhil admissions at Leeds University plummeted almost 19 per cent between 1995/96 and 1997-98. The equivalent drop at Sheffield University has been more than 16 per cent, at Liverpool 13 per cent, at Edinburgh 10 per cent and at Nottingham almost 9 per cent. At Manchester direct PhD admissions have dropped 6 per cent.

At Oxford University, the number of research students admitted has dropped repeatedly since 1994-95, with 1997-98 figures down 4 per cent on 1995-96 and 11 per cent on 1994-95. The biggest decline has been in science subjects, down 17 per cent on 1994-95.

While at Cambridge, where PhD admissions rose 3 per cent between 1995-96 and 1997-98, the board of graduate studies said graduate admissions were not "consistently buoyant".

The falls mirror the findings of several of the research councils, which recently warned of the "declining interest in scientific careers among young people" and of not offering "sufficiently high stipends to bring some of the best intellects of coming generations into the sector". Many of the research councils favour increasing the stipends but this will depend on the government's comprehensive spending review.

Karel Williams, director in graduate social science studies at Manchester University, said a PhD was "a luxury product that sits uneasily on top of undergraduate studies. There may be an expansion in certain areas that appear to have vocational and career opportunities".

A Leeds University spokeswoman blamed the dip on a combination of student debt, poor research council studentships, as well as the strong economy.

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