How Britain lets down its postgraduate students

As any postgraduate student knows, it’s tough trying to study and keep your life together in the face of economic hardship. While many of the UK’s postgraduate students struggle to make ends meet, the little funding that exists is being ruthlessly cut and some universities are using their postgraduates as little more than free labour. By contrast, postgraduates in other countries are well supported. Even in the US, the home of hyper-capitalism, there is generous support for postgraduates. The stereotypical image of the student that has been fixed in the public mind is based on a fictionalized representation of an undergraduate who is a binge-drinking, drug-taking, all-shagging, soap-dodging layabout who prefers to watch The Jeremy Kyle Show or Countdown in his/her semi-darkened hovel rather than go to lectures or seminars.

The attitude of the hacks at the Torygraph and the Daily Fail is one of, “Haven’t you had enough education” and”Why should my taxes pay for you to study? Why can’t you get a job and stop sponging off society”? These sentiments are often echoed by “the man on street” whose position has been at once mediated for him by the press and influenced by his lack of understanding as to what the pursuit of postgraduate study entails, as well as its long-term societal benefits. “Well, what good is a PhD in English Literature? Can you get a job with it”? With this, the vox-pop interviewee falls into the trap of believing that education, like training, should always end with a ‘proper’ job that is directly related to the field of study.  The production of knowledge is omitted from the reply because the speaker does not have an understanding of how knowledge is produced and may possibly believe that it appeared of its own accord or that it has simply always ‘existed’.

But that is not all.

There is a worrying trend towards a kind of anti-intellectualism among the political mainstream.  The idea that academic study can exist for its own sake is despised and dismissed as whimsy.  Witness the lack of creative thinking that emanates from the small minds of the government and opposition frontbench with their preponderance of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) graduates. Witness the contempt in which certain academic disciplines  like Media Studies and Sociology are held. The knowledge that is produced in these fields and others is deemed “worthless” by the Conservatives and their allies in the press. It is in these disciplines and others in the arts and humanities where we will find those postgraduates who are most likely to be self-funded. The sciences will always attract funding, much of it from central government schemes, wealthy benefactors and pharmaceutical companies. The Russell Group universities will also have no trouble attracting funding. Indeed, many of its students will have oodles of daddy’s money at their disposal. The same cannot be said of someone from a modest background, who is working on a PhD in Cultural Studies at a post-1992 university, which is not a member of any university grouping.  Does that mean that the knowledge that is produced in such an institution serves no use to society? That is absurd.

As a consequence of cuts in Higher Education, disciplines that involve critical thinking are being effectively limited to those who can afford to study them. Higher tuition fees and the rising cost of living combine to have the effect of excluding working class candidates, adults who are returning to study and the low-waged from certain forms of knowledge. For a Conservative Party that is preoccupied with a nostalgic vision of the Victorian Age,  this is ideal  because it allows them to control the flow of knowledge; to filter it, to stifle it and to keep the people in their place. Since the 1980s, the provisions contained in the 1944 Education Act have been effectively torn up before our very eyes. Nu Labour did nothing to stop it.

If the government continues on its present course with regards to education generally, we will slip back to the 14th century in terms of our knowledge base. We already have a massively de-skilled workforce as a result of the systematic shrinkage of our industrial base, now we risk a major knowledge deficit to go with our other deficits. Universities rely on postgraduate students; they attract funding and they produce new ideas.

Currently there is no serious form of support for postgraduates. Academic funding bodies like the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have changed the way they distribute their funding. Now, money is placed into a pool between a group of universities, which then dole out the money to those applicants whom it deems to be worthy of funded study. The rest can pretty much go to hell.

This Guardian article from April paints a bleak picture. This one asks “Why is postgraduate study missing from the social mobility debate”?

Postgraduate students need access to the kind of funding that allows them to live without the threat of financial ruin if they should fall ill or lose their job through redundancy or injury. The work of postgraduates of all disciplines needs to be recognised as an investment rather than a ruse to avoid doing a ‘proper job’. Higher Education should also be returned to The Department of Education (Gove should be removed as Secretary of State but that’s another blog).

The Postgraduate Workers Association (PGWA) has been set up to fight for the rights of postgraduates who are working as hourly paid lecturers and researchers. It has the support of the University and College Union (UCU). The PGWA has a blog here and a Facebook page here.

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Filed under Cuts, Education, Government & politics

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