Student funding has been a battleground in recent years and financially embittered undergraduates, stung by top-up fees, have been offered a raft of university-sponsored bursaries as compensation. But according to some, universities – and society – get their returns from postgraduates, not undergraduates. So what is being done to help the PhDs of the future?

Traditionally, research students have found funding through research councils. But this year's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) should remind British institutions that university-sponsored funding is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Through the RAE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England gives money to universities according to the quality of research submissions. Institutions need PhD students to nurture their research base. And to attract postgraduate research students, the universities need to show they are making funding available, which is easier if they are winning RAE funding from Hefce, and so on. The question is, are universities doing enough by offering bursaries, scholarships and fee-waiving?

"The universities are pushing their bursaries towards undergraduates," says Duncan Connors, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC). "But any benefit to society comes from the PhD student. We should get our fair share." The NPC is the postgraduate equivalent of the National Union of Students, formed by a group of postgraduates who felt they were underrepresented.

"The assumption now is that university is a three-year game: you go to a university and then off you pop to the graduate recruitment scheme of your choice. But it's the PhDs that are going to be providing the lecturers and academics of the future – and they are getting left out."

The concern is that, since the introduction of top-up fees, students will be saddled with so much debt that further study – and further debt – is a step too far.

"Of course, it's going to become a problem for home students," says Professor Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education. "They will have a considerable chunk of debt on their backs, which will give them pause for thought."

McCrae's main concern is that, over the coming years, research will be further confined to a cabal of institutions – particularly the Russell Group of 20 elite, research-intensive British universities. He says that, thanks in part to the quality and quantity of their RAE submissions, they will get an increasing lion's share of the available research income from the Government. "Lower down the league tables, management will be asking, given that these PhD students are more expensive, 'can we afford to have them around?'"

But new universities – typically very active in the field of undergraduate bursaries – are finding their feet in postgraduate studentships. Manchester Metropolitan, for one, is challenging the hegemony of the Russell Group. Each year the MMU English Research Institute offers two research studentships in English. The arts and humanities are typically starved of postgraduate funding. But the MMU studentships match the equivalent award offered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the pre-eminent funding body in this field.

Business schools, ever thrusting, are also doing their best to stay ahead of the game. Lancaster University Management School has one of the highest intakes of PhDs in the UK and, offering 10 to 12 doctoral studentships a year, each worth up to £15,000, it's not hard to see why.

Students are expected to teach in return, and must complete the necessary teaching certificate, but according to Sarah Patterson, doctoral programmes administrator at Lancaster, the students gain experience that way, making the doctoral studentship a particularly attractive proposition. "There are always more people than we have money for," says Patterson. Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University launched its innovative graduate tutors system two years ago. A cosmopolitan group of 10 embryo academics were brought on salaried contracts to teach students while spending around two-thirds of their time on their own PhDs. As David Hart, 26, points out, it's an arrangement for the benefit of both sides.

"I teach a combination of undergraduate and postgraduate modules, closely related to my field of research," he says. "When you're leading seminars, once in a while an idea will jump out or a student will look at something from a completely different angle and it can really spur on your own research."

Should they complete their PhDs satisfactorily, the 10 postgraduates will be given permanent lecturing contracts.

"As soon as I saw this programme it did smack of, 'what's the catch here?'" says Hart, who specialises in marketing. "I always liked the idea of lecturing and teaching, but you're not going to get a job in academia unless you're at doctorate level.

"I could never have afforded to do a PhD without this help. And to get this experience this young..." Any reader drooling should be warned: though there has been talk of running the project again, there are no firm arrangements as yet.

West of the border, at the University of Wales in Cardiff (UWIC) there is a particularly well developed postgraduate funding system. Each of the university's five schools can consider students for part-time tutoring posts. Around 35 per cent of its PhD students are staff members who have fee waivers; generally about 50 per cent of research students get some sort of financial support from the university. The university's BARS scheme (Bursary Awards for Research Students), of which the university has five a year across the UWIC schools, offers £10,000 per annum, plus tuition fees for three years.

Alex Woolley, 23, is studying for a PhD at Cardiff School of Art and Design, part of UWIC. Now in his third year of funding on the competitive BARS scheme, he previously didn't even think it possible to receive postgraduate funding in his field, product design.

"I suppose it was a surprise to me in that sense," he admits. "I'd definitely recommend this if you're keen to study a PhD. For me it's been brilliant and without it... well, it was a just great route for me to be able to do a PhD."