Loans for PhD Fees?

Just a short post to remind (or perhaps just tell) interested parties that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is running a consultation on issues connected with postgraduate education. According to the BIS website:

We’re seeking views on proposals to introduce loans for postgraduate taught master’s degrees and to improve support for research students.

The consultation closes on May 29th 2015. The Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society are putting together collective responses for Physics and Astronomy respectively, but anyone can submit an opinion.

The scope of the consultation seems carefully worded as not to suggest explicitly  that loans might be extended to postgraduate research (i.e. PhD) students, but the implication is there. If the system of providing research council scholarships to PhD students were to be scrapped in favour of loans I think that would have a devastating effect on the future of UK science, as another sizeable loan on top of the debts accumulated as an undergraduate would put most potential research students completely off the idea of doing a PhD.

I wonder though if there might be actually be a limited role for loans in funding PhD students that might actually have a positive effect. I’ve stated before on this blog that I’m not opposed to the principle that students who can afford to make a contribution to the cost of their education should be required to do so, as this releases funding to support students who can’t afford to make such a contribution. I’ve never agreed with transferring the entire burden onto the student – which the current system effectively does – but I think it is reasonable for students to chip in a few grand when they can. It is true that having a better educated population benefits the country as a whole, which is why the taxpayer should support university students, but there is no question that the students themselves do benefit financially so they should share some of the cost too. Offering susbsidised loans to enable them to do this makes it quite a reasonable proposition.

One advantage of students having to contribute to their fees emanates from the fact that people tend to value things more if they have to pay for them. It seems quite clear to me that students, generally speaking, show far greater levels of engagement with their courses now that they are investing their own money in them.

Universities charge fees for posgraduate courses too, including the PhD, though these are much lower than for undergraduates. At my institution, the University of Sussex, for example, fees for a PhD in a science subject are about £4K per annum. Students funded by a research council bursary get this fee paid on their behalf on top of a stipend of around £14k per annum, and most are probably not even aware that the fee even exists. Students not in receipt of external funding usually have either have to pay their fee by working for it (possibly by teaching) or have to convince the institution to waive it, in which case the Department concerned does not cover its costs. If a student has a bursary that covers a fee plus a stipend for up to 4 years there isn’t much of an incentive for a PhD student to take a shorter time to complete.

So my suggestion is that it might be worth thinking about moving to a system wherein PhD students would be able to access loans to cover their fees rather than having them funded by a research council bursary or by having to work to earn the money. Such a scheme would save the cash-strapped research councils part of what they currently contribute and it would actually help students finance their own PhD if they had no access to such contributions. Having to borrow the money to pay the fee might deter some potential PhD applicants, but it might also improve completion rates by giving an incentive to finish promptly rather than hanging about. Note that a student with a PhD can expect to earn, on average, about 23 per cent more over a lifetime than someone only holding a Bachelors degree so it seems to me to be reasonable to ask a student to stump up part of the cost of doing a research degree through a loan which need only be paid back when the salary reaches a certain level.

I think this suggestion does have a positive side, but it is by no means a complete solution to the problem that, at least in the UK, we produce many more people with PhDs than are needed to sustain academic research and we need to think much more carefully about whether this route provides the correct career development for scientists in the wider world.

11 Responses to “Loans for PhD Fees?”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “there is no question that the students themselves do benefit financially so they should share some of the cost too”

    “Note that a student with a PhD can expect to earn, on average, about 23 per cent more over a lifetime than someone only holding a Bachelors degree”

    Does the latter quote apply to some average across all disciplines? If so, the situation in astronomy is probably different. My guess is that most people in astronomy who don’t get a doctorate leave the field substantially earlier than those that do (and of course a small minority never leave the field) and usually earn much more money outside of academia. So, in purely economic terms, the doctorate in astronomy might lead to the person in question earning less over his lifetime compared to the one without.

    Also, with a progressive income tax, those who earn more automatically pay more in taxes (in percentage, so even more in actual numbers), so those who benefit are already paying more.

    It seems to me the only way to do things properly is to have all education state funded, with no fees at all, including cost-of-living expenses. In return, students can be expected to complete their work in a standard time (barring exceptions for medical conditions etc), so there would be no possibility of voluntarily slacking off without any serious consequences. This would also save a lot just in administration costs.

    Another problem with loans and fees is that it is politically easier to increase the load on the student than it is to introduce them. In other words, it’s a slippery slope.

    If the student ends up not paying anything back, because he earns too little, then there is no gain in having fees. If he does, then he pays back more due to progressive income tax.

  2. I’m unsure of the merits of getting students to finish their PhDs quicker. On the one hand, for those who are going to leave academia and do something else (which *should* be the majority), the shortest possible PhD is probably a very good thing. But for those physicists who want to progress to a postdoc and then on through academia I’d suggest a three-year PhD is a significant disadvantage even compared to a UK four-year one, let alone compared to the longer PhD programmes in the US.

    Given the short-term nature of postdoc contracts, a PhD often presents the longest continuous stretch of research time at a single institution, and is probably the best opportunity to really spend a lot of time gaining a deep understanding of a topic and even developing a broad set of research skills in different areas. That’s unfortunately often too much of a luxury for a postdoc worried about the next job application cycle.

    I know of at least one UK university where the policy is to pool the final six months’ worth of the 3-1/2 year STFC PhD grants, so that those who want to finish quickly and get out of physics research get 3 years, and those who are trying to make it in academia get 4.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s completely the wrong way round! It’s far more impressive to finish in three years, especially now that publication times are shorter than they used to be. I think it’s definitely inthe student’s interest to finish in three years if they can. Taking much longer than that is usually a sign of either poor supervision or a weak student (or both).

      • It should be the wrong way round, but in my experience and also from speaking to other postdocs, Sesh is at least somewhat right – you can have an advantage in the job market later on if you take longer over your PhD. The extra time can give you a chance to publish more or simply get more on top of your field. This is an advantage – getting a good 1st postdoc can be difficult as a 25 year old, especially if competing against ~30 year old Americans who have spent much longer on their PhD and have the publication record to match.

        Later on, the fact that essentially all decent postdoctoral fellowships require you to be within X years of your PhD graduation to be eligible strongly favours those who did more during their PhD or just got more on top of things by the time the clock starts ticking.

        If I did my (UK) PhD again I would have considered either finding some way to extend it or doing it in the US.

        Back on the subject of postgrad loans, my feeling is that these are mainly targeted towards the arts, humanities and social sciences , where students having research council funding, particularly at masters level, is far far less common than it is amongst physics PhD students.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “Taking much longer than that is usually a sign of either poor supervision or a weak student (or both).”

        I would agree, except for Sesh’s point that it will be a long time, if ever, before one again has the luxury of not having to look for the next job as soon as the current one is started.

    • I can see how that could be one view of it – you finished your PhD really quickly, so you must be really good – but another view is that 4 (or more) years of research experience trumps three when applying for postdoc positions. I think this is probably particularly true when comparing UK PhDs, with on average 3 or 4 publications on completion, with their US counterparts, who may well have 6-8, and possibly on a broader range of topics.

      Obviously I am not advocating that the student produce the same number of publications in four years as in three, just slower.

  3. In my opinion, the UK problem of producing more Phds than needed in Academia has to be addressed in a completely different way in no way related to setting financial obstacles to a prospective Phd candidate!

    Research shows the link between low family income and poor educational attainment is higher in the UK then in most other developed countries. Equality of opportunities has to be improved, not deepened.

    For most young, freshly graduated students, what I am going to state, might not be of great concern, but for someone with, for example, family responsibilities, taking a funded Phd place already requires careful consideration. You can’t apply for a mortgage with a PHD studentship, for example. For someone already working, they would probably have to leave a better paid job and seriously consider their budget. Can you imagine Mr. Somebody , who is working in Industry and has a family and a mortgage to pay, and is considering taking a Phd ? This would mean going back to a £14K wage. Now imagine Mr. Somebody considering a Phd place when he has to get into debt to do it. Also, not paying tax or national insurance contributions, might appeal to some but make others think about their pension contributions.

    To be honest, I appreciate the value and importance of the current scholarships which, when I compare to the opportunities in my home country, make completing a PHD in the UK a walk in the park (financially speaking). That is why I value the system so much. It is still difficult in some cases, but for most, feasible. The requirement to take a loan would be a deterrent. And the worst part of this deterrent is that it would discriminate not based on motivation and abilities, but based on someone’s financial circumstances.

    • telescoper Says:

      I disagree with your conclusions. The loan I am suggesting would be similar to existing arrangements and as such would only be paid off if earnings rose to a threshold level adn would be waived entirely if students could not afford to pay them. I am not suggesting replacing stipends with loans.

  4. Phil Uttley Says:

    Here in the Netherlands PhD students don’t pay any fees but are instead treated as research employees of the university, with contracts, salaries (lower end of the same scale that postdocs are on), pension etc. After all, they are “Assistenten in Opleiding”, or research assistants in training, and if all goes as planned during the 4 years of their PhD they contribute in terms of research and productivity in the same way that postdocs do. Of course this means that they are significantly more expensive than UK PhDs, but perhaps that is a good thing to help address the PhD/postdoc imbalance. Another big plus is that we can hire people from anywhere in the world provided they have a relevant Masters degree, no restrictions to people who studied here previously, as is the case with the STFC studentships. I remember how tricky that made it to find top students in the UK, especially after they increased the number of positions while the pool of physics-educated graduates wasn’t growing. I hope that situation has improved since.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    As someone who was once heavily involved with taught MSc courses, I welcome that the government is considering offering student loans for people taking taught master’s courses. The provision of loans for undergraduate courses but not for MSc courses was an anomaly.

    I take the opposite view about loans for PhD students. I do not see that having even more PhD students would be helpful, especially given the academic careers crisis. I am not convinced that PhDs are significantly helpful in preparing people for employment outside academia, at least in basic science; many of the skills that employers value are already in place at the time of completion of master’s degrees.

    We have a situation, in Britain at least, where some PhD students work as research labour for their supervisors, and get a doctorate as a byproduct. I would feel having students fund themselves to support the research of supervisors would be exploitative.

    Having even more PhD students would require having even more data and more facilities.

    One positive aspect of self-funded PhD students, however, is that people would be less likely to tolerate poor supervision or poor research opportunities. That might kick some backsides in universities that need to be kicked.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “I am not convinced that PhDs are significantly helpful in preparing people for employment outside academia, at least in basic science; many of the skills that employers value are already in place at the time of completion of master’s degrees.”

      Probably true. There are places, though, who value just the title. But should anyone want to work there?

      Physicist: I would like to work for you.

      Boss of taxi company: Any special qualifications?

      Physicist: I have a master’s degree in physics.

      Boss: Sorry, all my drivers have at least a doctorate.

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