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.Follow @telescoper