GRADUATE STUDENTS’ DILEMMA
By Shola Adenekan
Friday, November 21, 2008.
Some of us are familiar with this academic: the constant visit to the bank manager for an overdraft extension, the endless hours at the library, yet our friend toils away at a magnum opus he thinks will make an impact on the world.
For Iona Jones, the first problem was not knowing if she could manage an intellectual challenge after 14 years out of formal education.
To resolve this, she arranged to sit on a taught masters class to get a feel for learning and the language of academia.
The second problem was juggling the simultaneous demands of work, family and academia.
"I think it's very difficult for most people to consider taking a PhD when there is no funding available, unless you come from an occupational group which has charitable funding or can get a research grant, of which are very few, you have to sacrifice a lot to study," she said.
"I was fortunate that my employer funded my first year which meant I had a bit of time to save for the next year, but it wasn't easy."
For those who attempt it, the PhD can be daunting, and finding the money to complete doctoral studies on time can even be a greater hurdle to scale.
There are very few scholarships available for graduate students, especially in arts and humanities faculties, and experts say this inevitably means a significant proportion of students will either abandon their studies or have to embark upon them without adequate funding in place.
"This in turn leads to delays in completion as students need to take up paid work to meet the need of fees and living expenses," said Dr Katharine Skinner, a lecturer in African studies at the University of Birmingham.
"Funding is an issue across the academic disciplines, but I believe the arts and humanities may be the worst affected."
Dr Skinner may be right; while taking a decade to finish a PhD may seem unthinkable to academics in the sciences, long PhDs are actually common in the humanities.
Money is no longer the problem for science PhD students that it once was in the UK. Experts say that most projects will come with a tax-free allowance of at least £12,000 a year.
And once the tax is considered this is almost as much as many new graduates in the UK earn during their early years in work.
The most recent study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) suggests that students receiving funding are more likely to complete their PhDs.
For full-time students, the subjects with the highest completion rates after seven years are biological and physical sciences at 81% . Mathematics, engineering, medical subjects and agriculture also have completion rates of 70% or more.
Hefce's former director for research and knowledge transfer, Rama Thirunamachandran - now at Keele University - said the fact that around 30% of full-time PhD students and 60% of part-timers had not completed their studies after seven years raised questions.
"It highlights, among other things, the approach we are adopting aimed at raising standards of supervision and training in return for significant public investment," he said.
"We shall wish to consider this and other issues raised by this report in dialogue with the higher education sector and other funders."
Tara Brabazon, a professor of media at the University of Brighton who has previously lectured in Australia and New Zealand, says there is no doubt that the funding model for postgraduate education that exists in the UK is hurting the academic life of the nation.
"A decision must be made in the United Kingdom at the level of both policy and public opinion if the PhD as a qualification is to be valued and supported.
"If it is to be valued, then PhD scholarships for best students are required throughout the sector," she said.
"If it is not valued, then over educated foreigners like me will apply for academic posts and be successful, because we hold the qualifications."
Experts say that the longer a PhD candidate progresses, the less likely they are to finish. And those who do not finish set an unfortunate model for other scholars.
"For the students, it means they are held in a kind of psychological and financial limbo, unable to apply for many salaried academic posts and yet no longer qualifying for funding," said Dr Skinner.
"They see their friends getting new jobs and promotions, buying houses, starting pensions, and they begin to feel left behind. This can be very demoralising."
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is one of the main funding organisations for PhDs in the UK.
Historically it has supported 1,500 postgraduate students every year. A spokesperson admits that competition for its awards is fierce with a success rate in previous years of around 25% .
"The AHRC is committed to the support of postgraduate research and training but it has a limited budget," he said.
"We are aware that we can only support about 10% of arts and humanities students each year. It is also worth noting that many of the remaining 90% of students are not eligible for our support as they do not meet our residency criteria."
But what about the tutors and universities who supervise doctoral work? Does the clock tick for them enough to motivate their students to reach the finish line?
Completion rates were taken to be one measure of quality, and have therefore been monitored and made public by Hefce since 2005.
The result is that institutions that fail to get their postgraduates to submit on time face not only being penalised directly by the funding councils but also potentially losing out in the lucrative postgraduate market.
"It not only means that the students are spending more time at university when they should be at the next stage of their career, but supervisors are also tied up providing extra supports for these students," said Prof Stephen G. Hillier, director of postgraduate studies and international relations at Edinburgh University.
"In general, it is a sign of low proactivity of both student and supervisor."
For the hard-up PhD candidate without a research grant or bursary, the only alternative is the Access to Learning Fund administered by universities in England, but that is also fiercely competitive and only few students end up meeting the stringent conditions attached to the award.
And the credit crunch means many high street banks are not too willing to lend to people without regular income.
Some students complain that they are sometimes seen as money-makers or indentured servants for the department, rather than an asset. The learning needs of research students, they say, are often met only in an ad hoc or student-driven manner.
Sophia Acord may have received excellent support from both her supervisors and department at Exeter University, but she believes research students in the UK should be seen as valuable source of fresh ideas and renewed vigour to traditional scholarship.
A PhD student, she says, requires a commitment on behalf of the entire faculty.
"In general, the financial burden is one of the biggest problems for PhD students, a constant preoccupation preventing them from carrying out their desired research and learning over the course of the PhD," she said.
Universities accept that some students may experience problems of a personal or work-related nature that require a longer period of study. They say they support these students where necessary.
"We try to make sure that self-funded PhD students have thought through the resources - money and time - they will require during their research before they commit themselves, with the knowledge that there are few sources of additional financial help if they start without a scholarship or bursary of some sort," said a spokesperson for the University of Birmingham.
"The help that the university does provide is in terms of research skills as well as project planning, time management and IT skills, which should help the student to be more effective, focused and efficient."
Editor’s note: The article was initially published by the BBC.
Shola Adenekan is the editor of The New Black Magazine and an education journalist.
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