The financing of doctoral study is a flawed system

Kathryn Cribbin is Engagement Coordinator at Edge Hill Students’ Union Limited

With the increasing cost of living and students potentially facing a financial crisis it is only too right that we look at how the sector and the government can do more to financially support students.

A lot of the debate on student finance focuses on the undergraduate student experience and how it doesn’t work for many students, particularly those from working class and lower socio-economic backgrounds. But what about the lack of finances available for PhD research?

The current UKRI consultation on a “New Deal” for PhDs aims to look at access to Doctoral study, of which, funding is a huge part – so it’s important that the sector has a decent conversation about challenges in this area.

Viability questions

Before starting my self-funded PhD part-time alongside full-time employment within higher education, I did not believe that it was financially viable to do a PhD without doctoral funding from a relevant body or organisation.

I know now that it is doable, but it’s hard and with the cost-of-living crisis, this is only going to get tougher. This situation will continue to price many students out of research and academia.

Let’s consider the doctoral loan available to PhD students in England. Unlike undergraduate student loans, there’s no separate loan for tuition fees that are paid directly to the university, and then a maintenance loan or grant. You get one loan that is for fees and living costs.

I think it is important to note that the government does say that the loan “can help with course fees and living costs”, but there’s no illusion that it will cover it all. It should though. And when it says help, lets see how much “help” that loan actually is.

Building a case

Meet Bob. Bob has just finished their master’s degree and wants to continue their research.

They’ve got a supervisor lined up and their research proposal has received support from academics within their chosen field. Despite applying for multiple doctoral studentships and reaching reserve lists, Bob has ultimately been unsuccessful, so they consider applying for a doctoral loan.

Taking the maximum loan available this is what Bob’s finances would be if they were to start in September 2022 on a three-year programme living in Manchester.

7384.56One bed apartment outside the city centre
1947.6Electricity, heating, water for 85m2 apartment
1560Food if spending £30 a week
363.6Internet on UK monthly average of £30.30

If Bob was to do nothing more than eat, sleep and live alone, they’d be £4,186 short. The total outgoings doesn’t include commuting, books for research, potential conference costs let alone a social life.

The costs quoted as well are extremely likely to have risen in recent months and will continue to do so. How does Bob make up this difference? Their parents can’t afford to support them and the only other alternative is a part-time job which would take away valuable time from research.

Time to get real

Bob is not real. But the situation I’ve outlined here is very real. Unlike undergraduate loans, doctoral loans are not based on your parental or individual income, everyone is able to access the same amount of money. But an equal loan amount does not mean an equal playing field.

Some universities offer guaranteed Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) positions but this is not universal. Larger universities and those who are research intensive, particularly Russell Group universities, are also more likely to have funds available to support PhD students wanting to attend conferences.

Conferences are a fantastic opportunity to network which is often invaluable for pursuing a career in academia. If you cannot afford to attend you are losing out on current research trends, knowledge, and connections.

There are students who are undertaking a full-time PhD who work multiple jobs to supplement the frankly ridiculously low amount of loan available from the Student Loan Company. This is detrimental to their research and arguably, is reinforcing the difficulty in students from working class and lower socio-economic backgrounds from accessing education.

What can be done?

I fundamentally believe that education is not a privilege, but a right. And everyone should have equal access to it. Unfortunately, tuition fees and the student loan company appear to be here to stay, with the government’s response to the Augar review confirming this.

Recognising that loans and fees are here to stay, the way to address shortcomings in funding is to increase the amount available via loans and for universities and research councils to increase their provision of scholarships and financial support to students. The government so far appears unwilling to increase student loans inline with inflation, but students, undergraduate and postgraduate, can’t afford for this refusal not to be challenged.

Improving the finances available to Doctoral students is one keyway to increase access. Another is to build on the great work being done by the sector and charities to increase access to HE via Widening Participation programmes. I would argue that a similar approach or commitment is needed to widen access to postgraduate study, including Doctoral study.

What I’ve not covered here are the differences in amounts available from Doctoral studentship or the disparity between funding for STEM and Humanities students. But this does all highlight the shockingly poor financial support available to those wanting to pursue a PhD – and how this provides even more barriers to working class students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It is vital that when we discuss student finances and the lack of financial support available for many that we don’t miss PhD students out of the conversation.

One response to “The financing of doctoral study is a flawed system

  1. “has received support from academics within their chosen field. Despite applying for multiple doctoral studentships and reaching reserve lists, Bob has ultimately been unsuccessful, so they consider applying for a doctoral loan”.

    Bob should not trust anything his supervisors says without independent verification- “you are brilliant Bob – take the loan”.

    I did my PhD in an area where I was fully funded to do it part-time alongside my career. I was from a working class background.

    I went straight into a very well paid job because of the subject of my PhD – no post-doc, no zero hour contracts. I did very very well put of this.

    HOWEVER… It’s madness to encourage students in the humanities and social sciences to take out loans.

    Within a University context there is an oversupply of these individuals which is why many get stuck in the loop of endless short-term contracts. I could find a history PhD under every lamp post. In a University setting they are less not more valuable.

    “But they might not want to be an academic!” – let’s get real – people doing an English lit, history or similar PhD are sold on that idea.

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