Higher Education: Being first is not enough: There are too few postgraduate grants to match the demand from the highest achievers at Britain's universities. Ngaio Crequer reports

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JONATHAN LONG is one of our brightest graduates. Earlier this year he was awarded a first-class degree in French and German at Oxford University. He wants to pursue his studies and take up an academic career. But his plans have been thwarted. Despite his excellent credentials his application for a one-year studentship was turned down by the British Academy, which since 1984 has taken over the direct administration of funding postgraduate awards in the humanities for the Department for Education.

He had been told by his tutor at Magdalen College that he would need a First because grants were so hard to come by. And he would have to do particularly well in that area of his studies which he wanted to take further. He knew, too, that the academy was keen to persuade people to move around when they did their postgraduate study, not just to stay at the institution where they had taken their first degree. He wanted to study at Nottingham University.

He fulfilled all the criteria. 'When I got my results from Oxford, with very good marks in the right places, I regarded it as a foregone conclusion that I would get my studentship,' he says. 'When I didn't, at first I felt a lot more anger than disappointment. I felt let down. When people with first-class degrees are being rejected, it strikes me as a tragic waste of our country's talents.'

Jonathan is not the only disappointed candidate. The number of applications for studentships in the humanities went up this year by 12.5 per cent compared with last year. They have risen by 36 per cent since 1989.

The quality of the candidates is also improving. The number with a first-class degree this year was 998, an increase of 17.5 per cent. Of a total 3,200 applications, 860 were successful. The academy says there were 1,080 applicants with a first-class degree or an MA with distinction, 220 more than the number of awards available.

Michael Jubb, deputy secretary of the academy, says, 'There was no doubt that many more than 860 of the candidates were worthy of an award, and the academy would very much like to be able to provide more studentships. But the number of awards is determined by the amount of money the Government provides for the postgraduate studentship scheme.'

James Hopkins, lecturer in philosophy and tutor for graduate admissions at King's College London, says: 'We know of a good number of people who we thought were coming, who had a First or equivalent, but had not got grants. People who used to meet the requirements informally laid down are not getting the awards.

'It was never said that if you got a First you would get an award. But if you had a First and you were recommended by tutors it was almost always practice that you did. I have examined here for 20 years and I know that standards have not changed.'

He suspects that a shortage of money has led to committees having to weed out candidates. 'But they have done so on inadequate grounds, because they had to make decisions and all they had were statements about the qualifications of extremely bright people. No one would think it was an objective or rational process.'

Mr Hopkins suggests that a less arbitrary procedure would be the academy awarding more grants for the first year of a course and then requiring the institution to do the weeding. 'It would mean some people would not be able to go on, but at least the process would be rational.'

Candidates do not know why they fail to win an award. Jonathan Long says: 'The course at Nottingham is very progressive. I thought that might have had something to do with it.'

He wrote to ask why he had been rejected. Evelyn Young, an assistant secretary (studentships) at the academy, replied that he had not been rejected, they had just run out of studentships. She said that the academy itself took no part in the selection process. This was carried out by an independent committee of experienced academics who placed the candidates in order of merit, and who also drew up a reserve list.

Her letter continued: 'The candidates for awards are all competing against each other for their places in the order of merit list and the selectors do not tell us why they consider one to be marginally better than another.

'They weigh up the quality and value of the proposed research, whether the proposed location is the right place for it to be undertaken, whether the best possible supervisory arrangements have been made, how well suited and qualified the candidate is to the proposed studies, and of course the recommendations of the sponsors and the reports on postgraduate study already taken.

'These things are considered more important in the assessment than simply the result of a first degree on its own. A first-class honours degree is not, and never has been, a guarantee for a studentship at postgraduate level. A large number of candidates with Firsts were disappointed last year and the same is happening again this year.'

Ms Young said that because the number of people gaining Firsts was going up each year, it meant the quality of students aiming to do postgraduate research was also improving.

Peter Brown, Secretary of the academy, says more first class degrees are being awarded. There is no evidence that this is because standards have slipped.

Nor has the money situation substantially changed. In the last two years, funds from the Department for Education have hovered around something in excess of pounds 9m. Mr Brown thinks there has been an increase in well-qualified candidates who, because of the recession and the difficulty in getting jobs, have looked again at research possibilities.

But there may be another answer. 'One of the problems with the studentship scheme is that there are more Firsts,' Mr Brown says. 'If you hung on to the old system of a First meaning you got an award, you would be squeezing out good 2:1s, some of our best researchers. As one of our people put it, 'What a first-class degree shows you is that you are good at sprinting; but 400-metre people may be the best researchers.'

'We have shifted our emphasis. It is not a dramatic shift but there is more weight on the application, the reasons for, and the description of the research, than the degree results.'

Jonathan Long still wants an academic career. Nottingham has offered him some teaching opportunities. He has taken out a pounds 5,000 career loan. He will be knocking on the door of the British Academy again next year.

(Photograph omitted)