A benefactor is fast becoming more essential than a first-class degree for a PhD.
The number of PhD students at British universities has fallen, according to the latest figures from the Office of Science and Technology. Academics are worried that research will become the preserve of the rich and those who have industrial sponsorship. They are also concerned that when tuition fees are introduced and maintenance grants scrapped, students will have accumulated too much debt to be able to stay on for a PhD.
The total number of PhD students dropped by almost 15 per cent between October 1994, when 6,396 students started a PhD, and 1996. "We are disappointed to see the number of doctorate students going down," said John Mulvey of Save British Science.
One possible reason for the fall is the healthy state of the job market - during a recession more students remain in education. But Dr Mulvey has no clear answer to why the numbers have fluctuated.
Students starting a PhD in October will receive a bumper pay rise of more than 20 per cent, the government announced last week. But the new stipend will not be enough to get students out of debt. The minimum annual pay will be Pounds 6,455 compared with the present lowest rate of Pounds 5,295. This is less than two-fifths of the median starting salary for a graduate, which this year is Pounds 16,500, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters.
At the same time, the number of students who receive public money from the six research councils fell by 10 per cent between 1993 and 1996. The most dramatic plunge was in the number of studentships funded by the Medical Research Council, down by more than a quarter.
This research council pays its PhD students more than most: a London-based final-year student receives more than Pounds 10,000 compared with the lowest London rate of Pounds 6,855 from the Economic and Social Research Council.
Meanwhile, the number of taught and research masters degrees has increased by 6.5 per cent and 4.7 per cent, respectively. In particular, the number of students who paid for their masters degrees out of their own pockets rose from 12,135 in 1993 to 13,796 in 1996 - a 14 per cent increase. And the number of masters students funded by industry rocketed from 529 to 993 between 1994 and 1996, a rise of 87 per cent.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said that the fall in the number of PhD students was due to the consolidation of earlier growth. And it is not worried about the increase in the proportion of self-financed students.
"It is not something of concern, although we are in favour of publicly funded students," said a spokesperson.
"The level of employer contribution should naturally increase," he added.