Just under a third of full-time PhD students and two thirds of part-timers fail to complete their doctorates within seven years, a report has revealed.
The figures, described as "scandalous", raise questions about the future of part-time PhDs as so many take extra time to finish them. They also suggest a two-tier system is developing between well-funded students, who are more likely to complete their studies on time, and students without financial support.
The figures, which were published this week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, provide the first comprehensive picture of the completion rates of all PhD students - not just those funded by the research councils. They show wide variations between universities and between departments. In future, universities seen to be persistently failing students could be financially penalised.
Howard Green, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said: "The fact that only 71 per cent of full-time and 34 per cent of part-time students complete in seven years is scandalous - both at a personal and institutional level. It begs the question of whether doctorates can be undertaken on a part-time basis."
Professor Green said that in 2002-03 there were 108,610 PhD students in UK universities, with roughly half studying part time. Of these, about 80 per cent were at old universities. "This is not a new versus old issue," he said.
Rama Thirunamachandran, Hefce director for research and knowledge transfer, said: "We would like to see these completion rates improved. Research degrees are vital to the knowledge economy and represent significant public and private investment."
The report, which will be repeated annually, found that students who receive funding are more likely to complete. After seven years, 80 per cent of full-time students with research council or charity funding completed, compared with 59 per cent of those with no financial support.
Professor Green said: "We can see the development of a two-tier structure that will potentially exacerbate the pattern of completion and attrition that the Hefce study has identified. All the international evidence demonstrates that funding is the key variable in successful completion."
The report also found significant variation between institutions.
Last month, Hefce announced a new funding methodology for research degree programmes. From 2005-06, funding will be linked to standards set out in a Quality Assurance Agency code of practice.
"Ultimately, if institutions are not delivering then we reserve the right to withdraw funding," Dr Thirunamachandran said.
Under the new methodology, only departments with a research rating of 4 or above will receive funding for research students.
But Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "This increasing concentration will damage universities - many of them pre-1992 - who are struggling to maintain 4 ratings."
The Hefce report also found that young students complete more quickly and science research students complete more quickly than those in the humanities.
'Keep this route open'
Reba Gibb is one of the lucky ones. She was awarded her PhD in art history after six years of part-time study.
"I did my PhD at Warwick University and was entirely self-funded," she said.
"It is vital that the part-time route is kept open for students. Lack of funding must not be used as an excuse to block it off."
She said many people in their sixties, particularly women, who were unable to do degrees in their youth, wanted to catch up later on.
"I did my first degree in my thirties. In pursuing my PhD, I have felt constantly discriminated against because of my age by funding bodies," she said.
She is now planning to write up her PhD, on sybil or pagan prophetesses and their role in the renaissance, as a book.