The Wrong Carrot?

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, May 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Wrong Carrot?


Postgraduate loans are welcome, but we must recognise the role of funding in decision-making, argue Paul Wakeling and Adél Pásztor

This week marks the closure of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' consultation on postgraduate loans, but it is not clear to us that all the responses will be as positive as the department may be expecting.

Loans of up to £10,000 for taught master's study, announced by the chancellor in last December's Autumn Statement, are likely to be widely welcomed. The loans scheme is a response to direct calls for such funding from several bodies, including Universities UK, the National Union of Students and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Indeed, the proposed loans closely mirror plans already outlined by the thinktanks CentreForum and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

But what of loans for doctoral study? Their announcement in the Budget took many - including us - by surprise. The headline maximum figure of £25,000 is eye-catching and the absence of subject restrictions continues the departure, first seen in the master's loans proposal, from the default Treasury emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. This, like the pledge not to displace existing doctoral funding, is welcome. But further details are sketchy. It is unclear, for example, whether postgraduate research loans would, like master's loans, be restricted to those under the age of 30. And the lack of public clamour for a PhD loan scheme may indicate that there is actually little need for it.

There is certainly less apparent appetite for self-funding at PhD level. Figures reported in BIS' consultation document indicate that just over a third of UK research degree entrants are self-funding, compared with three-quarters of new UK master's students. Beyond that, what evidence is there about the role of funding in attracting talented graduates to postgraduate research?

Our work is one of only a few British studies to examine access to the PhD, including the role of funding in graduates' decision-making. We interviewed 53 graduates in-depth about their post-graduation choices. About half our sample were enrolled on a PhD; the others had not enrolled despite being qualified to do so. We found that many graduates, including some academic high-flyers, rejected the idea of a PhD on grounds other than finances. Some had simply had enough of studying and wanted to "get out into the world and do something". Others, with only a tinge of economic rationalism, saw a PhD as a little frivolous. …

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