Out with the old, in with the new

Courses in social sciences and the methods of funding them are changing. Anne McHardy finds that students now want degrees that will lead to jobs
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The Independent Online

A PhD student at the University of Reading is analysing driving behaviour and is funded by the AA, while another recent graduate was funded by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to look at behaviour and guide dogs. Their fellow PhD social-sciences research students are funded predominantly by the Economic and Social Research Council, the largest funder in Britain of postgraduate research degrees. But funding, as with everything else in the postgraduate world, is changing.

Reading University – where a new social sciences block, the Centre for Brain, Behaviour and Health, is under construction – is a microcosm of the flux everywhere in the social sciences. The changes are in styles of teaching, in subjects studied and in finance. Some are driven by levels of employment, but others are driven by levels of undergraduate student debt, which is putting people off postgraduate degrees. Taught PhDs and MSc degrees are usually funded by students themselves.

Dr Graham Schaeffer, the course director at Reading, says that the university's psychology department had been offering a Masters course in research training for the past decade but is now also offering research training as part of a one-plus-three four-year PhD course, with the first year effectively an MSc. New courses are looking at the psychology of early development, and at cognition and ageing, effectively the whole life span, he adds.

Current low levels of unemployment mean that many undergraduates choose jobs not further degrees, and this is being exacerbated by debt. For postgraduate students, the cost of a further degree on top of a student debt is a deterrent.

"A few years ago, getting a PhD place was very competitive," says Dr Schaeffer. "What has happened with increasing student debt and divergence between private and public sector salaries, is that it is harder to find PhD students. That makes it a buyers' market for the student. They can look around and there is more chance they will get funded than there used to be."

Reading, in common with most other universities, is seeking to expand its numbers of taught PhD courses, and so some of the distinctions between PhDs and MScs, and between taught and research courses, are being blurred.

The shift in subjects, according to Professor Steven Hill, the deputy director of the London School of Economics, who will from September be the principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, has been steady over decades, from those looking primarily at society to those predominantly analysing individual behaviour. Psychology, he says, is particularly attractive.

Politics and economics remain steady favourites, as do business management studies. Those studying politics might expect to work in government. Employability, he says, is "very much in the minds of students when they are considering subjects".

Christine Dean, of the Economic and Social Research Council, the largest of the funding councils for social science postgraduate degrees, agrees that universities are competing for students. "When unemployment is low, student applications fall. A research salary cannot compensate. For a studentship, even in London, this year the basic maintenance grant will only be £10,300. If unemployment is higher, then people will consider research."

The ESRC funds 600 to 700 research students each year. This year, the proposed figures are around 700 but the final total will probably be 800, with a total of 2,000 students being funded across three years. Of the rest, Ms Dean says, some are funded by the smaller research councils, some by the universities themselves, some by charities, some by employers. Taught students are predominantly self-funded but this is changing.

"This year, we have started to look at taught postgraduate degrees in our recognition process, although we are not funding any students at the moment. The board will have to make a decision at a later stage," Ms Dean says.

There is debate about European students. The ESRC funds students all over the United Kingdom, except in Northern Ireland – any student who goes there is paid by Northern Ireland, explains Ms Dean. But the ESRC doesn't fund students from the EU. "We can fund fees but we don't pay them a maintenance grant, says Ms Dean. "We don't fund UK students going to EU universities. They must find funding in the country to which they are going."

The other change is the abolition of the mature student incentive, previously paid to those over 26. This has now ended because it was recognised that the difference between 25 and 26 was unreal. Change, says Ms Dean, reflects the pattern of demand for courses.