Vice-chancellor fears drop in UK PhD student recruitment

Experts warn shrinking pool of postgraduate researchers would be ‘pretty disastrous’

November 16, 2022
Adelaide, Australia - March, 26, 2016 Baklava Boy (NZ) with Richard Cully, takes a tumble during the Neutrog Young Members Benchamark 120 Hurdle- 1500 m, at the Oakbank Racing Carnival Club Easter Carnival near Adelaide South Australia. The event runs ann
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Early signs suggest that the number of PhD students in the UK is set to fall, a vice-chancellor has warned.

Sector leaders have warned that such a development could be “disastrous” for higher education in the UK.

Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, told Times Higher Education that PhD students were “an essential part of the research and innovation landscape”.

He said that there were several indicators that suggested that PhD student numbers could drop, including significant cost pressures on their two major funders – UK Research and Innovation and universities themselves.

UKRI was recently forced to increase its stipend for PhD students by 10 per cent to combat the cost-of-living crisis, but mounting inflation is likely to lead to pressure for further rises.

Meanwhile, the income that UKRI and higher education institutions do have is being forced to “cover ever more activities”, Professor Smith said.

“Taking all of this evidence, a possible conclusion is that one of the responses could be fewer PhD students in the system,” he continued. “There are some initial signs this is already happening.”

A full understanding of the right number of PhD-level students and how they are funded was important for the UK economy, he added.

Speaking at a Universities UK conference on research and innovation, Professor Smith described this potential fall in PhD students as the “effect of unintended consequences”.

Sir Richard Catlow, a chemistry professor at UCL and Cardiff University, told the same event that sector leaders needed to “highlight the absolutely crucial role of PhD students – both in maintaining a healthy research ecosystem and in providing people power for the future”.

“If we’re going to decrease the number of PhD students, that is a pretty disastrous development,” Sir Richard said.

Karen Holford, vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, told the same event that PhD students were needed both in universities for research, and in the wider economy.

“If you think of the skills we help a research student to develop, they are so transferable…to any other industry – the project management, the people skills,” she said

“It is an amazing training ground and it’s actually very cheap training for whoever is going to pick up a PhD student at the end of it – they’ve got a very highly trained, very highly skilled person and it is a very cost-effective way of getting the skills into the economy.

“And if we are cutting the number of students because the costs are going up that’s foolhardy.”

The sector might have to make those arguments following the autumn statement by chancellor Jeremy Hunt, she said.

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Reader's comments (3)

This has been happening for many years. Now, the cumulative effect of years of below-inflation pay rises, reduced pension expectations and less attractive working conditions have made academic life unappealing for most UK students. Given that the majority of PhD students are aiming (at least initially) for an academic post, it is not surprising that the numbers are low. In my career of over 30 years as an Engineering academic, only a small fraction of the 40 or so PhD students that I have been involved with supervising have been from the UK.
PS. Plus the student debt that those of us above a certain age did not have to consider.
True. Even those not aiming for an academic post (I know of several) are put off by the long hours, meagre stipend. Something will have to give.