About one in five engineering PhDs offered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 1998-99 were unfilled at the beginning of the academic year, according to figures released this week.
Overall the EPSRC saw take-up of its PhD places fall from more than 90 per cent last year to 85.1 per cent in 1998-99. This is the third consecutive drop since the 1995-96 high of 97.5 per cent.
Richard Brook, chief executive of the EPSRC, said in a letter to vice-chancellors that the council would "seek ways to ensure that higher levels of take-up can be reached in 1999".
The rate of take-up of studentships varied among EPSRC subjects: 92.6 per cent of PhDs offered in physics had takers, in mathematics the take-up was 91.8 per cent, in materials 90.8 per cent and in chemistry 90.4 per cent. In information technology and computer science, take-up was 85.2 per cent, while in engineering it dropped to 82.6 per cent.
For masters courses, overall take-up was 82.6 per cent, down on last year's 89 per cent and 1994-95's 96.5 per cent. Engineering and materials fared worse, with take-up of 74.1 per cent and 69.8 per cent respectively.
Professor Brook blamed student debt, a relatively buoyant jobs market and the modest stipend for the fall. Many students would have decided whether to take up a PhD before the announcement of the Pounds 1,000 stipend increase.
"If the drop turns out to be because of the stipend, I would not exclude movement on that," Professor Brook said.
He also suggested that the recent introduction of project studentships may have had an impact. About 350 students in the physical sciences are employed directly on projects rather than being funded through the normal stipend route.