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Postgraduate funding cuts – A disaster in waiting

At least one estimate suggests that student numbers worldwide will double by 2025. The bulk of this increase lies in students seeking their first degree – especially among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and emerging economies – so it is perhaps unsurprising that governmental strategy globally has prioritised undergraduates.

However, the consequent neglect of research and graduate education is now threatening the higher education sector’s viability.

In the UK, recent decisions by the research councils to stop funding taught masters programmes, and to cut very substantially the funding available for research masters and PhDs, raise significant issues for the sustainability of the entire university system.

The last cohort of taught masters students to be funded have now completed their programmes, and the UK’s research councils will fund no more. Additionally, the councils have cut an already financially starved cohort of PhD students by at least 20% for next year – a loss of more than 1,000 students – and research masters will drop by about 50%. Undergraduate growth is here mirrored by graduate anorexia.

This is not a local, UK issue.

Following OECD encouragement since 2004, many governments are systematically transferring the costs of a degree from the state to private individuals: governments in the advanced economies, largely allergic to the idea of progressive general taxation, lack the political will to increase state investment in higher and graduate education.

Postgraduates key to academy, economy

How important is this?

Graduate-research students are characterised by great intellectual and research potential. Their work, by definition, must be a serious advance in research terms, and must also be of sufficient significance and quality to attract the attention of the authorities in their field.

Such students are therefore absolutely central to the continuing vibrancy, vigour and relevance of the university institution.

Further, their work is vital to the economy in general. Robert D Atkinson and Luke Stewart have pointed out that US universities have taken on significant roles in innovative research: in 1960, universities performed 38% of all basic research, but by 2011 it was 56%.

The researched discoveries pass largely to the private sector, yielding massive economic benefit. In the same period, meanwhile, corporate R&D fell. A conservative estimate is that the social rate of return from investment in this research – that is, the public good, or the benefit to the nation as a whole – is at least 40%.

Yet according to Atkinson and Stewart, despite this empirical evidence of success for investment, the US – like other nations more recently – is radically reducing state involvement and investment in the university as a site for research. There is a certain inexorable logic behind the emerging crisis, and it is tied to the more general issue of the funding of higher education.

In 2010, the UK provided a rationale for a marketised system through the Browne review, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education.

The central tenet and presiding idea of the Browne review is that higher education is primarily a private good, its beneficiary being the graduate. Therefore, the graduate pays. That has the ostensible virtue of clarity and simplicity; but it also has the weakness of intellectual and economic over-simplification – and the consequences of that weakness are now evident.

First, it affects the ability of the next generation of researchers to sustain the sector. Already burdened by excessive debt, and with limited job and income security, which students will easily entertain the idea of accruing yet more debt as they pay their own way through a further four years or more of research?

What will happen to the general research base of the economy as a whole if they decide, reasonably enough, to cut their debt losses? What will happen when we do not have enough well-qualified people to provide the university sector itself with teachers?

More fundamentally, while the Browne review supposedly supports mass participation in higher education, it actually narrows participation in the benefits of higher education; it atomises the social into unrelated but hierarchical elements (self-interested graduates above the rest), linked only in a ladder of wealth and poverty; and it ideologically limits public commitment to any idea of social benefits resulting from research.

In short, research becomes the preserve and domain of the privileged, wealthy but philanthropic amateur: we are witnessing a return to the economies of the 18th and 19th centuries, and we are doing this in the name of modernisation and progress.

The short-term ideological approach of the advanced economies is damaging the standing of research students and their work. Increasingly, the research undertaken is supported by the state if, and only if, it is ‘near-market’; that is, if and only if it can be exploited commercially immediately, and with economic gain as the immediate result.

Potential shortfalls in business investment in R&D are increasingly addressed by state-funded university research, carried out on behalf of business. This represents a massive state-subsidy – taxpayer money – going into private hands in the commercial sphere. Yet even this, too, is now obviously threatened by the reduction of that very state funding that initially supported business in the first place.

This is clear economic folly, driven by a misunderstanding of the benefits that the next generation of graduate-research students can bring, and by the narrowly instrumentalist demands of a neoliberal agenda that has lost any interest in the relation of the graduate community to the general economy.

It is a disaster in waiting and, if the UK is followed internationally, we won’t be waiting long.

* Thomas Docherty is professor of English and of comparative literature at the University of Warwick and serves on the steering committee of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.
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