Saturday 9 February 2013

Postgraduate education: time for a rethink

The Master said: "I never refuse to teach anyone, not even those so lowly they come offering nothing more but a few strips of dried meat."   
The Analects 7.7

It’s that time of year again when hopeful applicants are being interviewed for postgraduate places in the UK. The bar is set ever higher: gone are the days when a good first degree would guarantee you an interview. In my own department, the sad reality is that even for those with stellar CVs, the amount of funding is pitifully small. If you’re really smart and motivated and determined to get a doctorate, the only way forward may be self-funding. But here’s the problem: student loans will cover undergraduate but not postgraduate study. If you’re on a full-time course, it can be hard to find a job that would begin to cover your costs. So the only option may be to find friends or relatives willing to give or loan you the money. For a doctorate in Experimental Psychology at Oxford (UK and EU students), this comes to £6,659 per annum in fees, plus you have to demonstrate you have £12,900 per annum for living costs. And for overseas students, the fees are nearly three times as much.
At undergraduate level, huge efforts have been made to widen access and to ensure that family background is no barrier to studying at Oxford. Indeed, there have even been complaints that there is a bias against public school applicants. But at postgraduate level, everything is different.
This point has been forcefully brought to the attention of academics here in Oxford because of a legal challenge that was issued last month October by a potential graduate student, Damien Shannon. Mr Shannon had been accepted for an MSc in economic and social history. He obtained a bank loan to cover fees, but was not allowed to take up his place because he could not demonstrate that he had £21,082 to cover living costs. Although Mr Shannon is suing St Hugh’s College, the monetary undertaking is part of the University’s requirements and not specific to any one college. He is challenging this requirement, on the grounds that the financial demands are unreasonable and discriminate against poorer students. Shannon argues that it is perfectly possible to live in Oxford on less than £12K per annum; he objects to the fact that the cost of living level has been set on the assumption that students at Oxford will indulge in a lifestyle that involves “socialising and dining in college”.
I disagree with Shannon’s specific argument, but I’m glad he’s forced this issue into the open. He’s creating a diversion from the real issues by implying that Oxford only wants postgraduates who can sustain some kind of Brideshead Revisited lifestyle. This is just plain daft. If you are going to supervise someone, at Oxford or anywhere else, what you are looking for are the qualities specified by Chris Chambers: “Intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness – and sheer nerdiness”. Note that poshness, affluence and a taste for claret don’t feature in the list. Most of us prefer students who can stand on their own two feet without depending on donations from rich parents. But what we definitely don’t want are students whose studies are disrupted by malnutrition, financial stress and the tiredness that comes from trying to do postgraduate work while holding down a job. It’s taxing enough doing postgraduate studies without being in penury, and I reckon that the University’s cost-of-living estimate  is both reasonable in scale and motivated by a consideration for student welfare, not by a desire to exclude the poor.
Nevertheless, under the current system, it’s undeniable that the poor are excluded, and, with students now amassing large debts during undergraduate courses this trend is exacerbated. This can only be bad for social mobility. Employers are increasingly demanding qualifications beyond a first degree: you may not even get shortlisted for a job unless you have at least a Master’s level qualification. On the basis of analysis of longitudinal data from the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study, Lindley and Machin (2012) concluded: "It is very clear that the individuals who have done better in terms of wages are those who have acquired higher education qualifications. In turn, the acquisition of higher qualifications has become more skewed towards people from wealthier backgrounds."
So what’s the solution? Perhaps we need to rethink how we structure our educational system. The current model imposes a chasm between studying and employment. The University of Oxford does not offer part-time degrees*(see below!), and discourages students from taking on any but minimal paid work. Contrast this with Birkbeck College London, where my mother studied for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the 1960s, while working as a secretary. (She was a mature student, and mealtimes in our household were greatly enlivened by regular “Educating Rita” moments, as when she was first introduced to Kafka :“I just don’t get it. There’s this man who’s turned into a cockroach. I mean, it’s just completely stupid!”).
I don’t see Oxford introducing part-time courses or evening study any time soon. Apart from creating administrative complications, especially in the context of the college system, it would go against an ethos that values the idea of intense scholarship, with the student free from worldly distractions. I’ve always thought that here in the UK our postgraduates have a huge advantage because they can immerse themselves entirely in research, allowing them to complete a doctorate some two to three years ahead of their North American contemporaries. I’d be sorry to see the option for full-time scholarship disappear: there is something special that occurs when a person is entirely free to focus just on academic study, to the exclusion of everything else. But I do think we need other options, especially in view of the growing financial pressures on students.
The introduction of more flexible degrees could make a big difference to students like Damien Shannon, because they would make it feasible to fund oneself through a degree. I can see benefits, too, for those who want to combine an academic degree with child-rearing. We have for many years had models in the UK for institutions offering part-time degrees, evening courses, sandwich courses and distance learning, yet these are regarded as outside the mainstream. My suggestion is that our top universities need to think seriously about offering such alternative modes of study alongside traditional degree courses if we really want to make postgraduate education accessible to all of those who are able to benefit from it.
Reference Lindley, J., & Machin, S. (2012). The Quest for More and More Education: Implications for Social Mobility* Fiscal Studies, 33 (2), 265-286 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5890.2012.00161.x

*This is what I love about blogging - within minutes of posting this blog, I've been corrected by Tristram - see first comment - Oxford DOES offer some part-time postgrad degrees already! 

PS 28/3/2013
The dispute between Damien Shannon and Oxford University has been resolved. Oxford University is to review its procedures regarding financial guarantees. Mr Shannon has been offered a postgraduate place from October 2013. I'll be following the review process with great interest.


  1. Good points in your post. The next generations of British academics are going to be drawn from a much narrower pool, in part defined by family wealth.

    However, on a point of detail (which does not change the value of your overall point), Oxford University does offer many part-time post-graduate degrees at Masters level and DPhil but in a limited range of subjects. Kellogg College, Oxford( was set up as a particular home for part-time postgraduates. The subjects with part-time postgraduate degrees, taught and/or by research, include software engineering, local history, evidence based healthcare and many others. See

    I'm a fellow at Kellogg College.

  2. Just at the moment - so I've heard - is a very good time to apply for a PhD studentship at German Universities. You are very likely to get a studentship if you have “Intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness – and sheer nerdiness” PLUS reasonable command of German. Mobility of students across European countries has been a way of life for centuries, but some grounding in different languages has also been crucial.

    1. Schade - aus meiner Sicht - dass sie nicht auch Professoren suchen.

  3. Many thanks Tristram - I have corrected the post - and am delighted to have discovered this. There is hope!
    And thanks too Uta - that's really useful information, and I hope will inspire some students to look further afield.

  4. Interesting. Your commentary about my case is simply wrong. You should really take the time to actually research the matters on which you produce public comment before deciding to publish. A few corrections/comments to make:

    1) I issued proceedings in October 2012, not last month. The press reported on it last month.

    2) I am not creating a diversion of any kind. You might want to rephrase this sentence. I am suing an affiliated College of your University because the policy of your University (which the College enforces) is that those who cannot afford to socialise and dine in College are not suitable for admission. I have not made this up - it is official policy. See here: . It has not been denied in court proceedings. Indeed it will not be denied before the courts on Friday. Instead, people much like yourself (who appear to be utterly delusional and divorced from reality) are going to attempt to argue before a judge with a straight face that it is perfectly reasonable to refuse access to people who cannot afford to dine in a restaurant!

    I realise you as an academic would clearly much rather insulate yourself from the realities of human existence and simply not have to deal with the human consequences of poverty. This sentence you have authored sums up the whole issue for me:

    "what we definitely don’t want are students whose studies are disrupted by malnutrition, financial stress and the tiredness that comes from trying to do postgraduate work while holding down a job."

    I have tried to be courteous with everybody I have debated with on this subject, but this sentence, frankly, shows you to be a total idiot. It is absolutely none of your concern whether a student is "malnourished" (although how you could ever hope to qualify that statement is beyond me), "financially stressed" or "tired". Providing they do their work to a satisfactory standard within a specified deadline, and pay their fees, the rest of their life is absolutely none of your business.

    1. I agree completely with Mr Shannon. It smacks of paternalism for the College to make a determination of what an adult student can/cannot do during their studies, particularly when they're not claiming to be able to work full-time in order to pay their fees in addition to living costs -- Mr Shannon has a loan to cover his fees and part of his living costs.

    2. Thanks for your comment. I apologise for the error over the date, which I have corrected in the post.
      I should add that, as readers of this blog will know, I'm not speaking in any official capacity. More often or not my views are divergent with those of the University establishment.
      But let's just get this "dining in a restaurant" clear. Here's what the University website says: "The cost above is based on a mixture of eating meals in college and self-catering. Meals in colleges are subsidised and can be significantly cheaper than purchasing meals outside. Self-catering can also minimise food costs."
      See also this student website, re living expenses:
      My reading of this is that while, with careful budgeting, it's possible to exist on the meals allowance specified by Oxford, it's hardly lavish. And Oxford is expensive compared to other cities.
      There's also the issue of whether projected earnings should be taken into account. These can be hard to guarantee, especially in current financial climate when people are losing jobs all around.
      No doubt you have researched the origins of the University's policy - I had always assumed it was put in place because they've found that many people who start optimistically thinking they can manage on minimal income end up having to drop out. But I am sure you will correct me if I am wrong in this.

    3. I shall surmise to you how I have put this in my court submissions:

      "MEALS in College are significantly cheaper than purchasing MEALS outside". That is, it is cheaper to eat in College than a comparable (private) restaurant. That is not a proper justification of the requirement to have the funds to do the former. I have established in my submissions that dining in College is more expensive than self-catering. Some Colleges adopt a policy even more ridiculous than the financial guarantee, in that they FORCE their students to pay a termly "dining levy" which can only be redeemed in the College restaurant, and if it is not redeemed, the money is lost! The elites running your institution are simply not of this planet. They are turning away perfectly good students on the grounds that they cannot (or choose not) to afford this completely unnecessary levy. It is not a question of whether the levy is "lavish", but whether it is "necessary" and "goes any further than is required". That is how the courts will assess it.

      How is Oxford "expensive compared to other cities"? On what basis do you make this claim? Are you implying groceries cannot be found at reasonable prices there? For my court submissions I compiled a database of every rental price for University and College owned accommodation, and a sample of almost 1,000 private sector rents. So at least one of us has bothered to research our claims.

      Whether projected earnings should be taken into account - world class Universities such as Harvard actually INSIST they be taken into account! You MUST as a graduate at Harvard accept the responsibility to earn a reasonable sum of money as a condition of receiving financial support from University funds. Closer to home, this is also de rigeur. Exeter, Edinburgh, Sheffield etc all have job shops, all encourage their students to make up their income with part time work. On what rational basis is Oxford opposing this? Again, the University is at odds with reality. Universities UK are on record as stating that they allow their students to work during study as the alternative is not being able to study at all. Why should Oxford be any different? (I will come to this again below)

      The origins of the policy strike me as ludicrous. The College have not submitted a SINGLE piece of empirical evidence justifying the policy. Not a single statistic. The figure itself is arrived at by the Committee of Domestic Bursars of the Conference of Colleges conducting a survey of... themselves!

      I will finish by saying to you what I have said to others. The ONLY reason Oxford enforce this policy is because they know with absolute certainty they will attract a sufficient number of wealthy applicants to fill the places, regardless of what financial restrictions on entry are devised. What happens if all of the offers are given to people of limited means? Do the University keep rejecting candidates, going further and further down the rankings of academic suitability, until they find those sufficiently resource-rich to meet the financial conditions? If most people made offers are of limited means, either the financial or the academic requirements must be relaxed to fill the places. Which goes first?

  5. Thanks for a very enlightening and engaging post - as usual I might add. I come from a country (Sweden), where since several years there is a requirement by law that any PhD position needs to be fully financed – by a university/faculty grant, by an external research grant, or by private wealth or equivalent resources (such as income from a part time employment combined w part time studies or, as in the present case, by a bank loan). If a PhD candidate is accepted on the last condition and the circumstances change, however, regulation stipulates that university has a responsibility to provide the outstanding funding, so fewer and fewer are admitted on such grounds because of the financial risk involved. In other words, taking on PhD candidates is a strong commitment, not only with regard to academic resources and pedagogic challenge, but in straightforward financial terms. Very recently, the regulation has been further strengthened, when it has been ruled that financing via grants, should by default come in the form of employment (securing the student social and pension benefits that do not accompany private scholarships or stipends or loans). This means that nowadays, we cannot admit people by far as freely as we could in the past, but it also means that those who are admitted are given the very best conditions for successfully completing their PhD studies in reasonable time. Also, the competition is tougher, which from a quality point of view is only a good thing - and this was indeed the explicit main motivation from the government for this reform when it was initiated. Anyhow, it seems to me that the sort of law case currently under scrutiny with regard to Oxford and the connected debate would never arise had the UK implemented similar rules on a national level.

  6. Thank you for a great blogpost- as usual! In Norway minimum salary is 48 000 GBP a year for a four year contract as a Phd fellow (25% teaching, 75% research). The living expenses in Norway are higher than in Britain, but nontheless the arrangements and benefits for Phd students here are very good.
    (e.g see, in spite of that all our Phd positions are announced internationally, we rarely get any applicants from abroad. Of course a Phd at oxford is much more attractive than one from Norway, but students also need to be aware of that there are also attractive possibilities outside Britain. Language is not a big issue, there is no problem taking the Phd here using English (also the teaching)

  7. Thanks Christian and Anon for giving a different perspective. International comparisons are useful for suggesting better ways of doing things, and it sounds like there are also options abroad that some of our good UK people might want to explore.

  8. Thanks, Dorothy for your comments.
    As you note, tuition fees are 6659 pa (in your dept). If someone starts their studies with an ESRC studentship (say a project linked studentship from a grant), then the max fees the ESRC will pay are 3732 ( Most Universities, whatever their exact tuition fees - often less than above, will write off the difference and accept what the ESRC gives, because of course they want the studentship, the stipend for the student, the kudos etc.
    But that's a big loss leader. Presumably if a self-funding student only paid 3732 in fees, they would have an extra 3000 pounds to increase their demonstration of financial security.
    Nb this is not a comment on this case specifically, and its impact depends on what the tuition fees costs are. But is seems an awkward 'brush under the carpet' anomaly that has developed because of the inexorable rise in fees at postgrad level.

  9. I teach at a graduate school in the USA in New York City, which has a lot of part timers. We're moving away from that for a variety of reasons, towards fewer, fully funded students. Part timers can be very good students and I know there are some folks I definitely would miss having but the system got out of hand catering to part timers. It was impossible to keep many of them on track towards a reasonable time graduation, and the faculty/student ratio got way out of hand.

  10. Thanks Jay. I certainly agree part-time is seldom ideal. I've seen it in Australia, where I often visit, and where students can take years to get a doctorate. Others have pointed out to me that these students are also seldom well-integrated into University life, and may miss out on seminars, etc that happen during the working day. You also mention problems with the staff-student ratio: this issue is another reason why, I suspect, Oxford has resisted this, because it would be especially hard to fit in with the college system.
    I'd be interested in more international comparisons to see if there are other countries that manage this better.
    As far as I can see, in the UK the only alternative would be to create more scholarships and it's hard to see how that will happen. Unless the baby-boomers (my generation) could be persuaded to leave money in their wills for this - some payback for the largely free education that we enjoyed.

  11. I think the situation in Belgium is quite similar to that in Sweden (although living expenses are probably much cheaper - and we do get a good number of international PhD students).

    - all PhD students are financially supported by a scholarship (100% research), either paid from a research grant awarded to the supervisor, or directly awarded to the PhD student (for example by the Research Foundation Flanders)
    - tuition fees for doctoral studies are minimal (300 € in your first and last year of graduate studies)!
    - Net wages vary between 1600 and 2000 € per month (depending on your age etc), with on top of that: holiday allowance, end-of-year bonus and reimbursement of transport fees (or a mileage fee if one decides to cycle)…

    In sum, the scholarship is more than enough to cover accommodation (one-bedroom flat in Leuven is about 600 euro), self-catering, etc. and after all costs are covered, you can actually still save quite a bit.

    The part-time option is mainly chosen because of family commitments, or if one starts graduate studies after already having a "regular job" and one does not want to quit the job.

  12. As a former postgraduate student at Oxford, I can concur that it IS an expensive place to live on a student stipend. Rents are at London levels, and non-college socialising (normal things like going to the cinema, having a drink in a pub, or having a cheap restaurant meal with friends - not fine dining or going to balls) are also more expensive than elsewhere.
    I do find the Oxford idea that you can't be a proper student if you aren't there full time a little odd though. I spent a lot of time collecting data in London, or even just in local schools, which takes just as much time away from college/seminars etc. as doing a part time job and studying part time, but I didn't feel I missed out.

  13. Haven't read a piece here in a while that I could say such an unqualified "Amen" to, so I'll say it twice - Amen and Amen. My girls's private Christian school recently went through a crisis after a sudden move to a curriculum that would have embraced this "integrated" model. For many parents, the requirement for their "gifted" children to be one grade ahead so they could be at the top of the SAT heap and get into Stanford ahead of the unwashed public schoolers trumped all.

  14. I studied as a post grad in Oxford in the late 90's and, while it was a wonderful experience, I
    had a very similar expereince to Mr Shannon at the admission stage. I had to demonstrate that I had the money before I could take up my place. Fortunately, I did have my money, although I take the view of Mr Shannon - ie, the only real concern for most colleges should be your ability to pay tuition fees.

    When I studied I was a registered nurse and so planned to undertake some clinical work where appropriate to generate money to live on. Providing this didn't affect my work or ability to study, what I did in my own time, had nothing to do with my college.

    on another note, Oxford's continued failure to adapt to part time study is anachronistic. Consequently, it precludes a huge proportion of people from studying there, simply because they aren't able to study full time and this is a real shame. I happen to think the part time aspect is more to do with elitism than anything else

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  16. Thanks Christian and Anon for giving a different perspective. International comparisons are useful for suggesting better ways of doing things, and it sounds like there are also options abroad that some of our good UK people might want to explore.