Doctoring the cost

Government plans for top-up fees are dividing the nation. But variable charges already exist for postgraduates, writes Nick Jackson
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The Independent Online

Last Wednesday the minister for Higher Education, Alan Johnson, surprised the university world by saying that lower top-up fees for the sciences would provide an incentive for prospective undergraduates. There is a similar scheme already in place for PhD students.

But what will be the impact of attempts by the Government to bring market mechanisms to academia, in the form of "golden hellos" for some doctorate students? The idea was raised in the Roberts report on science research earlier this year. As a result funding is being provided to increase the maintenance grants for all science PhDs, with an extra grant for people doing subjects that are thought to be under-subscribed. The Government hopes to tempt more science graduates into research, and into the fields it wants to make a priority, including engineering, the physical sciences, and pure sciences such as statistics.

The Arts and Humanities Research Board has countered the Government hike in science grants by increasing the maintenance grants for humanities PhDs, so as to give their students equal treatment. But the extra incentives for areas outlined by Roberts remain.

Frank Smith, a maths professor at University College London, thinks the differentials will work. "Some students are put off by the lack of money in research," he says. "If we leave it as an open market some students will continue on a course that won't lead to a good job and won't help the country. Many students make decisions on what subject to do based on relatively little data. Often they are influenced by a course or two which they enjoyed. A cash incentive to get them to go in a good direction is fine."

So what is a good direction for a PhD student? Is it one that benefits the British economy, like the PhD to encourage collaboration between research and industry, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)? Or is it one that allows a student to follow his or her nose?

The ESRC has increased the grants for the collaborative economics PhDs. Traditionally there has been a problem in attracting UK doctorate students partly because of the pay differential between the City and academe. But this is a problem of academic salaries generally as much as of low grants. "The level of the ESRC grant is not the problem, says Helen Gadsden, manager of the economics department at the London School of Economics. "People are dissuaded by the level of the academic salary at the end of a PhD. People don't do a PhD with the intention of going into business. It means a career in research."

Other academics agree that differential payments are unlikely to work because people do doctorates for the love of a particular field. For most students, research is not the means to an industry career but a career in itself, says Robert Eaglestone, a lecturer in English at Royal Holloway. "People tend to follow their hearts. If they're doing a PhD, they want to study that particular thing. People don't just sit around and say: 'Oh, I want to do a PhD no matter what.' We only let people in if they're going to do it properly, if they'll give their life to it."

Some universities have considered higher grants for unpopular fields, but decided that there was no point. Durham University is one such. It examined giving some chemistry doctorates more money "When they looked into it they found that no graduates would be motivated by a little extra at that level," says Chris Neville-Smith, a chemistry PhD student.

Because education is about allowing people to reach their potential, people need to do what they want, says Robert Frost, head of history at King's College, London. "This is a crazy idea. The Government is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic."

Dr Frost is also suspicious of the implications. "The Government has got itself into a philosophical mess," he says. "They talk about student choice and then run a mile when students choose something that they don't like. They want to manipulate people into doing what they want them to do. They claim to be bringing in student choice and then manipulate the market to suit themselves."

All agree it's important to put students before institutions. "No one should do a PhD unless they really want to," says Tim Brown, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee. "It's a vocation."

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