Friday, 14 September 2007

Studying science - if only they could

Today we see the news that a record proportion of our postgraduate science students are coming from overseas. Although we are certainly seeing more applications from places like China, this shift is in the most part caused by fewer and fewer postgraduate students coming from this country. Working in the university sector, this is no surprise to me.

I have over the past few years had at least half a dozen highly intelligent and motivated undergraduates whom I would dearly love to have kept at university for a PhD, but there was never any money to pay for them to do so - not even the few thousand pounds a year necessary to pay their fees. The only real option open to me today if I want to offer a student a PhD course is for me to submit a full grant proposal to the ESRC or EPSRC to pay for the studentship. Now, such an application can easily take six months, but that's not the main problem. Because of recent changes to the way universities do their accounts, this application is treated like any other full-scale grant proposal, and so must request money for all sorts of things that the university is paying for anyway - my salary for the time I spend supervising the student, the heating and lighting in my office - and things that are actually covered by the student fees: computer access, every piece of paper the student is likely to use, etc. As such, if I apply for the funds to get one of my graduates onto a PhD course, because of all this double-payment the minimum amount of money I have to request from a funding council is something like £200,000 - which of course is so much that there's bugger-all chance of me getting it!

If our talented and potentially world-changing students aren't to keep slipping through our fingers, we urgently need an increase in postgraduate funding and, more importantly, a sensible procedure for applications which does not require everything to be paid for twice, gobbling up what little money is available. In the old days there was a simple (albeit underfunded) process where our students could apply for the relatively little money they needed to do a PhD direct from the ESRC in an annual national competition, with the best applicants getting funded. More of this sort of thing.

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