What Use Is A PhD?
In the UK, there has been a significant rise in the number of postgraduate students, with 400,000 students currently enrolled on 20,000 different courses. This is a four-fold increase from a decade ago and represents one in five of all university students. In the past, a first degree was sufficient to secure a good job, but now a third of young people attend university, and the government aims to increase this to 50%, causing the value of a first degree to decline in the job market.
However, this increase in postgraduate students has not led to a more employable nation or more business success. Postgraduate degrees have become more expensive and, although they were once elite academic pursuits, they are now a commodity in the jobs market. Financing for postgraduate degrees has not kept pace with the rising demand, and the price of degrees is more reflective of what the market will bear rather than the cost. Postgraduate degrees from prestigious universities such as Imperial College can cost up to £15,000 per year, while those from new universities like Staffordshire cost £1,100 per year.
The high cost of postgraduate degrees has led to a large proportion of international students among the general postgraduate population. Universities can charge non-European Union students whatever they like, and these students are often supported by their governments, industry or wealthy families, making them a highly attractive customer base. However, UK students are finding it increasingly difficult to afford postgraduate degrees due to lack of funding and high tuition fees.
The research councils and the Arts and Humanities Research Board are the most prominent sources of funding for postgraduate students in the UK, but they turn down more applications than they accept. As a result, one in four of all postgraduate students in the UK is from outside the European Union, with China representing the largest non-EU contributor with 9,250 students enrolled in postgraduate studies in the UK.
However, the acceptance of international students, regardless of their suitability, and their representation in the top level of postgraduate study has raised concerns over the quality of British research degrees. The number of doctorates awarded by UK institutions increased by 27% between 1996 and 2000, with a quarter of them being awarded by just five universities. This has created a vicious cycle where less prestigious universities get fewer research grants and attract fewer top-level PhD students, resulting in ancient institutions getting all the research money going.
The report has unveiled that even though obtaining a research degree results in better employment opportunities in the long run, it does not significantly enhance short-term employability. This poses a serious issue as future work prospects are often the prime reason for pursuing a degree. It would be unwise to assume that after achieving a PhD, one can disregard working in the business sector as academia opportunities will automatically surface. This is certainly not the case. As stated in the report, "a growing number of PhDs compete for a decreasing number of full-time academic positions." Similarly, when pursuing alternative career paths, many organisations look for highly skilled employees but doctoral graduates struggle to make the shift from academic to practical work. The report highly recommends research degree programmes to include elements that are generic, such as team working skills, which would allow for successful transitions from academia to other fields. This explains why professional and vocational doctorates have become more prevalent. From 1996-2000, fields like creative arts and design (up by 138%), librarianship and information science (up by 78%), and education (up by 81%) experienced the highest growth rates in PhD programmes.