Due to the success of UK universities in attracting higher-paying international students, the higher education sector has managed to offset substantial losses amounting to £5 billion annually for research. However, this balance is becoming increasingly challenging, primarily due to government discourse regarding international students and immigration policies. Professor Rory Duncan, of Sheffield Hallam University, highlighted the significant pressure on the research sector, making it progressively harder to conduct research, including supporting PhD students.
However, there are indications that the state of doctoral education in the UK is not as optimistic as some may perceive. In November, the Student Loans Company highlighted the first potential yet modest decrease in the utilisation of postgraduate doctoral student loans.
Furthermore, there are signals that the availability of funded PhD studentships may diminish in the coming years. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the primary contributor to PhD funding, disclosed plans to reduce the number of its Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) from 75 to approximately 40 by 2024. This decision is expected to result in approximately 1,750 fewer funded places over the next five years. Additionally, the Arts and Humanities Research Council aims to decrease its PhD studentships by nearly one-third, from 425 to 300 per year by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the Wellcome Trust is significantly reducing its support for PhD students as part of a new strategy that prioritises longer grants for early- and mid-career scientists.
This poses a threat to the UK’s aspirations of being a “science superpower,” as its innovation model heavily relied on maintaining high numbers of PhD students. The UK has historically been a leading nation in investing in PhD training, alongside Germany and the US. In contrast, countries like Japan have taken different approaches, diverting support toward mid-career scientists, resulting in adverse effects on research quality, which the UK seems to be following now.
The pessimism surrounding higher education and research in the UK may contribute to the declining appeal of pursuing a PhD for high-achieving individuals. Professor Robert Insall, of UCL, added that this decline in attractiveness is attributed to the negative portrayal of British academia by the government and media, creating a perception of significant challenges within the academic landscape, which dissuades students and potential PhD candidates.