Supplying the future generation of researchers and technicians

In a special issue of The Biochemist, the magazine of the Biochemical Society, UKCGE Chair Professor Mick Fuller articulates how postgraduate funding has changed and how it might change in the future. 

Supplying the future generation of researchers and technicians

Professor Fuller writes:

Of the 2.5 million students studying at universities in the UK some 30% [500 000 postgraduate taught(PGT) + 100 000 postgraduate research (PGR) students] are studying for a postgraduate degree (1), and the decade from 2001 to 2011 saw a 7% year-on-year increase in the number of students registering for postgraduate degrees.

Within this expansion has been a healthy rise in UK students, but an even bigger rise in non-UK (overseas)students which bring large revenues to universities on top of the normal home funding. In fact, this decadal expansion in postgraduate student numbers was an unregulated or uncapped market for UK universities with a commitment from the Government funding agency [HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Councilfor England)] to fund home/​EU student numbers as they rose. Under a secure funding model, many departments across the UK followed an expansion route for postgraduate degrees, and this has encouraged specialization, collaboration with industry and the public sector, and has fuelled research ambitions and increased job satisfaction for academic staff who want to engage with more specialization at the forefront of their subject in small class sizes or on a one-to-one basis. The expansion in postgraduate courses and student numbers has been based largely on academic arguments since funding was always secure. However, recent Government policy changes on the funding of UK universities have begun to threaten the security of the postgraduate sector. Most of these changes have been to do with undergraduate funding, but there is a knock-on effect on postgraduate funding. In particular, the switch from a grant-based (to the universities) to a loan-based (via the student) financing model means that students are graduating from their first degrees owing £20 000–50 000 and it assumed that they will not invest so readily in the future in a postgraduate degree. In parallel, the funding agency (HEFCE) has had to reduce the amount of direct funding to universities for PGT courses as its budget has been squeezed in the financial crisis.

A quick explanation of the funding mechanism helps to highlight the challenges facing UK universities. Home/​EU PGT students are funded in part by the fee’ the student or their sponsor pays and part by HEFCE according to a weighted formula depending on the subject, with higher amounts for STEMM (Science,Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) subjects.These students are not entitled to loans from the Student Loans Company and so, unless they have a sponsor, theyhave to find their fees themselves and support themselveswhile they study. International overseas students do notreceive any HEFCE support and so must pay the full costof their course, their living costs, their costs of travel tothe UK and their visa costs (now a substantial cost in its own right). However, many of these international students are sponsored by their governments on full or partial scholarships as part of their home research and academic capacity building programmes.

For home/​EU PGR students, there are a lot morefull or partial scholarships available to students which will cover the costs of fees and living; however, there are still a lot of self-funded students who choose to study part-time, particularly in the non-STEMM subjects (Table 1). Approximately 25% of all PGR students (more in STEMM subjects) are fully funded by Research Councils scholarships and a further 27% by university scholarships, and partial or full funding from industry and the public sector also exists such that the majority of home/​EU PGR students have some funding to pursue their studies. The home/​EU PGR population is equally matched in numbers by fully funded full-fee-paying international overseas students who, because of visa regulations, are studying almost entirely full-time. So UK universities, as well as being responsible for theproduction of the next generation of home researchers are also making a big contribution to the production ofthe next generation of researchers worldwide.

Ironically, the fees paid by home/​EU students are the lowest in a university’s portfolio of fees and this is because of the dual funding mechanism which also sees HEFCE funding universities according to a HEFCE algorithm-based payment dependent on the research quality assessment (RAE/REF); this is the research degree programme (RDP) component of quality-related (QR) funding. Most higher education institutions (HEIs) adjust the fees they charge to home/​EU PGR students according to the standard fee that the Research Councils will pay. For PGT courses, the fee charged is much more variable and is tempered by how much the HEFCE grant is for Master’s courses.

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