So many postgraduates, so few grants

Studentships are becoming increasingly sought-after and, as a result, hard to get

The word "studentship" is not one often heard in the course of everyday life, though some dictionaries recognise it as the "state of being student". But in higher education, it is part of the lingua franca, meaning a "financial grant to support postgraduate study."

The word "studentship" is not one often heard in the course of everyday life, though some dictionaries recognise it as the "state of being student". But in higher education, it is part of the lingua franca, meaning a "financial grant to support postgraduate study."

With the expansion of postgraduate courses, and the growing cost of prolonging studies, studentships are becoming increasingly sought-after and, therefore, increasingly hard to get.

In the latest funding guide for students considering postgraduate study, produced by the Graduate Prospects organisation (, three main outside sources of finance are identified: employers (increasingly, postgraduate courses are undertaken part-time, with the support and assistance from employers); income from teaching undergraduates while pursuing postgraduate studies; and studentships. Studentships provide by far the largest pool of potential grants for full-time students, and the main donors are the academic research councils and boards.

There are six main research councils, covering medicine, biology, engineering, physics, the natural environment, and economics and social research. In addition, a broad swath of arts subjects is covered by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB). All are listed in full, with web addresses, on the Graduate Prospects website. They're all government-funded, and engaged in supporting research in all its forms, including postgraduate work.

Between them they have about £120m a year to distribute to students doing PhDs and masters courses. Competition for the money is intense. About a third of students starting full-time doctorates each year get funding, the minimum of which, for 2005, is £12,000 a year, on top of course fees. A far smaller proportion of students doing masters' courses, about 5 per cent, typically receive £5,000 to £6,000.

Over the past seven years, the number of postgraduates receiving studentships has remained stable, but the amount they get has risen sharply, after the Government was told by the academic world that financial hardship was preventing talented individuals from accepting research places.

The largest of the research councils is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which allocates grants to some 2,000 postgraduates a year. The bulk are for PhD students in university departments already receiving EPSRC research funding. "Studentship money follows the research money," says Iain Cameron, at the EPSRC. Among the research areas being supported at universities around the country are nanotechnology, the interface between physics, chemistry and biotechnology, and high-powered computers.

The AHRB awards about 1,500 studentships a year, rewarding about 28 per cent of those who apply, almost all of whom have a first-class degree. The broad aim is to improve knowledge and understanding of culture, current grants being directed towards mediaeval history, performing arts and design, among other subjects.

The bodies never allocate money directly to individual students. They either give block grants to universities, who then decide how they should be allocated, or they tell universities how many students they will fund, and the universities select the individuals.

For the benefit of students, most universities publish details of the studentships they have to offer. An exception to this is when universities hold endowments from individuals or trusts, specifically designed to be used as studentships in nominated subject areas. Numerous other organisations allocate grants of varying size, from the Cancer Research Campaign to the Institute for Food Research and the Knowledge Media Institute.

But the majority of postgraduate students still have to manage on their own, with part-time work, savings, or borrowed money. "It's a miracle how they get by," says Chris Rea, publishing manager at Graduate Prospects, "but most postgraduates are not deterred if they don't get a studentship."

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