But from time to time, the realities of the trade offs really reveal themselves.
Over the past year or so, for example, former Department for Education (DfE) SpAd Iain Mansfield has been known to make it clear that neither universities nor their students are likely to see an increase in funding unless student number controls are reintroduced to control the overall spend.
The implication is that there’s a pie, the Treasury consider it to be pretty big already, and so any increase in expenditure on universities or students would need to come from thicker slices, not a bigger pie.
So consider the quandary that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) now finds itself in. Its minimum stipend level is both what it pays when it funds a PhD studentship, and is regarded as the defacto standard across the sector. And it normally gets confirmed in January for the following September.
Last year, in the face of active campaigning and a growing cost of living crisis, it abandoned its practice of increasing stipends by the previous September’s Consumer Price Index with Housing (CPIH) rate – because 2.9 per cent wouldn’t have cut it when inflation was running up at around 10 per cent, with predictions of it soaring higher. Instead it went for 13 per cent.
So this year you might have assumed that we’d be back to normal – only last September’s CPIH was actually 8.8 per cent, and there are plenty of folks hoping that by September it’s significantly lower than that.
So having overshot on inflation in the run up to this academic year, will UKRI dare to attempt a correction – and if so on what basis?
UKRI phrases the problem rather more delicately than me:
We recognise that the delay may impact universities and other funders who set their stipend rate relative to ours. However, in the current volatile climate, it is important that we can make the most informed decision while also making the decision in time to fine tune recruitment. We are recommending that the universities we fund act with prudence in their recruitment processes for 2023 to 2024 student starts, especially if making offers ahead of the stipend announcement.
The real problem here is that in the current year, the big increase was pretty much covered by using “flexibility” available in its overall “talent budget” – but for 23/24, there is no further flexibility:
…so we will need to balance our support for students with the support we provide for other people in the sector and what additional funding can be made available.
Could that mean a direct trade-off between numbers and levels of support? It very much could:
It may be necessary for us to reduce the number of studentships available for students starting in the 2023 to 2024 academic year and beyond to cover the additional costs.
This is tricky stuff – not least because a key factor in the size and shape of this end of the academic career pipeline is this figure. We won’t fix the sort of stuff that Sarah Atkinson is talking about on the site today if we don’t get this right.
Set it too high and the danger is that a reduced number of opportunities are grabbed at by the usual suspects.
Set it too low and the danger is that those in more precarious financial circumstances can’t afford to take up the wider range of opportunities anyway – or at least are having an experience that, when combined with other employment, denies them the kinds of opportunities for academic immersion that would help their career.
Maybe the temptation is to try out some form of means testing – but that would bring with it its own set of downsides, contradictions and injustices.
Maybe UKRI will attempt to argue to its new minister(s) that it needs the money to support stipends – but that would bring the contradictions with the approach for undergraduates into sharp focus.
One thing that would help would be to understand the income and expenditure profiles of those doing PhDs – sadly not even DfE’s student income and expenditure survey covers that, and I don’t recall the “New Deal for Postgraduate Research” work getting into those sorts of weeds, although probably should.
A decision is, we are told, coming later in the Spring – but the longer the decision takes, the harder it is for those worried about money to source ever more expensive housing in the private rented sector, and so on.
In December, we informed senior university leaders and our training grant holders that we are delaying announcing the 2023/24 stipend level until the spring. We recognise that we normally set the stipend in January and that it often influences the stipend rate that universities set for their own institutions. However, in the current volatile climate, it is important that we can make the most informed decision while also making that decision sufficiently quickly for universities to fine-tune their recruitment for 2023/24 student starts.
The New Deal for PGR is a government commitment which represents an ambitious, long-term programme of change and evaluation. UKRI is undertaking a number of activities relating to this commitment. This includes completing the analysis and response to the Call for Input which was a UKRI-led cross-sector consultation run last year. We hope to update on our activities soon. We have prioritised work to consider the level of the UKRI minimum stipend for 2023/24.