Research: Universities must fight to attract postgrads

Fewer people want to embark on postgraduate courses for a variety of reasons, not all of of them financial, writes Simon Midgley
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For the first time in the past few years the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) has seen a significant fall in the number of UK students it has recruited to undertake postgraduate study.

In some areas this has been particularly marked. For example in 1997/8 the drop is of the order of 15 per cent in electronics and management respectively.

However, the falls in the number of students enrolled on one-year taught Master's degrees and PhDs are across the board in all science and engineering subjects, albeit the drops are greater in some subjects than others. In chemistry, for example, they are between five and 10 per cent.

UMIST is not alone. All UK universities have been hit by factors that are making the option of going on to do further degrees and research less attractive to graduates.

Saddled with increasingly significant burdens of debt from their undergraduate years, students do not want to get further into debt.

In a buoyant economy, moreover, the attractions of working in industry for an average starting salary of some pounds 16,000 a year often outweigh the appeal of labouring as a research student on a stipend of about pounds 6,000. Consequently more and more students are opting for a job rather than academe.

The third factor which has made taught Master's at least a less attractive option is that many universities have now established four-year MChem, MPhys and MMaths programmes.

At UMIST, the downturn in UK electronics students was compensated for by recruiting more students from overseas. In the departments most affected by the downturn, the university is now working on plans to increase the number of industry-funded scholarships it offers research students. However, UMIST's vice-chancellor, Professor Robert Boucher, says that it should not be left solely to the universities themselves to try to solve this problem with top-up scholarships. The research councils, he says, need to raise the level of postgraduate student stipends in order that universities can compete with industry.

The Asian economic crisis also has significant implications for future overseas student recruitment, he adds, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. UMIST has 1,500 postgraduate students, of which some 600 come from overseas, and 5,000 undergraduates, of whom 900 come from overseas. Having recently returned from a visit to Singapore and Malaysia, Professor Boucher says that the latter country is planning to cut the number of undergraduates it funds to study in the UK by a massive 95 per cent.

Although Malaysian undergraduate numbers studying in Britain will plummet, the Malaysian government is understood to be intending to continue to send postgraduate students to the UK, because it recognises that Malaysia does not have the facilities and expertise to train them.

In those countries where the value of currencies has more than halved, for example Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand, Professor Boucher says it is difficult to see any students coming, apart from a handful whose families enjoy private wealth.

UMIST, he adds, will be looking to recruit more students from other countries - it recruits from some 80 nations - to make up the shortfall in numbers coming from the Far East.

Professor Boucher says he understands that three British Government ministries - the Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign Office and the Department for Education and Employment - are discussing the possibility of setting up a scholarship scheme to enable students from Far Eastern countries to continue to come to study in the UK.

Another major area of concern for UMIST, as for all British universities, is the effect of the Conservative government's decision in 1995/6 to cut universities' equipment budgets by 30 per cent. That has meant an annual loss of some pounds 1m to UMIST. Cumulatively over the past three years the university has under-invested in equipment by some pounds 3m.

Professor Boucher says that industry has complained that UK students are being trained on out-of-date equipment and that it is having to look overseas for students who have been trained on state-of-the-art technology.

"Certainly we are expecting the Department for Education and Employment to be bidding in the public expenditure review for substantial sums of money to upgrade equipment," he says.

The other problem Professor Boucher singles out is the fact that the European Union, which provides increasingly large amounts of money for research in the universities, does not include money in its grants for the cost of overheads.

He hopes that the government will take up this problem with Brussels.