Poor funding for PhD students

Caterina Doglioni is one of the ‘very, very best” PhD students Oxford University physics lecturer Todd Huffman says he has ever come across.

‘She’s up there in the top 10,” he says. And yet, Oxford’s particle physics department has not awarded her a UK research council grant for her studies.

Instead, the grant has gone to a British student, as has been the case for the last four years, give or take the few times when British students have turned down places at Oxford.

Meanwhile, Doglioni has spent months trying to secure funds from charities and other sources to see her through her PhD. It’s a situation Huffman deeply regrets, but can do little about.

Research councils — non-departmental UK governmental bodies that fund thousands of PhDs every year — stipulate that only UK PhD students can receive a grant that covers their living
expenses as well as their tuition fees.

PhD students from the EU, such as Doglioni, are only entitled to a grant that covers their tuition fees. The only exception is if the EU student has studied in the UK for three years before they apply for a PhD grant, in which case they can receive living expenses, too.

What, asks Huffman, are these European PhD students going to live on if they are awarded a fees-only grant?

If a UK university does award a fees-only grant to an EU student, it loses the money for living expenses that would have gone to a British student. The UK is almost alone in giving its home PhD students this kind of monetary advantage.

A study by the UK Higher Education International Unit, The UK’s Competitive Advantage: The Market for International Research Students published last year, found that ‘the majority of the UK’s competitors provide generous support (fees plus living costs) for all international postgraduate students”.

What is happening in Oxford’s particle physics department is happening across the country, says Professor Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education. He says: ‘It is clearly very unlikely that a student from the EU would be able to take up any research council studentship [grant] offered if it is only paying for their fees and providing no support for living expenses—” ‘If we grab [excellent researchers] when they are young, we stand a better chance of retaining their talent in the UK,” says Huffman.

It also seems odd, he says, that the UK does not allow what our EU partners do seemingly as a matter of course. Students also find funds through charities, educational trusts, university scholarships and elsewhere.

And Research Councils UK, a partnership of the seven research councils, says there are other routes for funding doctoral students that are not restricted on nationality grounds.

Doglioni says the refusal to help with living costs means that ‘some EU PhD applicants may choose a university on the continent since they are more likely to have their subsistence paid for”.

A pool of excellent students from the EU may be going elsewhere because they cannot afford to live and study for a Ph in the UK.

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