Arts postgrad funding slashed

19 June 2008

Jonathan Laurence

Investigations Editor

Nationwide cuts in government funding for postgraduate humanities students will hit Cambridge MPhil and PhD candidates hard, The Cambridge Student (TCS) has learnt.

Cambridge University can expect to receive subsidies for one third fewer postgraduates in 2008-9, following a decision to reduce the number of studentships available across the UK from 1500 to 1000.

Professor Ian Leslie, a high ranking University official with special responsibility for academic research, said

that although this year’s cohort of graduate students would be particularly badly affected, government funding would not return to 2007-8 levels.

“There is a particular dip next year in studentship numbers”, he commented. “Numbers will increase, but not up to the numbers prior to the cut.”

Dr Catherine Maxwell, Secretary for the Board of Graduate Studies, told TCS: “Over the last five years Cambridge has received an average of 157 Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) awards per annum, roughly 85 PhDs and 70 Masters, and we can expect those numbers to be cut by 33% next year.”

And Dr Maxwell also revealed that 100 fewer students have been put forward by the university to the national stage of the funding competition.

“Cambridge submitted 408 applications to the AHRC in 2007/08 but we were provided with a quota of 314 applications for the 2008/09 competition,” she said.

“The University is deeply concerned about the funding cuts and is actively seeking ways to help fund those students who will be adversely affected”, the Graduate Studies secretary continued.

The reductions in funding have been condemned as a “horror and a disgrace” by Quentin Skinner, Regius Professor in Modern History.

Confidential minutes from a meeting of senior fellows from the Arts faculties seen by TCS show that the University has contacted the AHRC, the national body responsible for distributing subsidies, in order to express concern.

Professor Leslie confirmed that he had contacted the chief executive of the AHRC “expressing our concern that PhD studentships had been hit so hard.”

The minutes also reveal that the University is unaware why funding has been cut so heavily. According to Professor Graeme Barker, a fellow of St. John’s who sits on the AHRC, “the reason for the magnitude of the reduction is unclear.”

When contacted by TCS, Professor Barker said: “The funding outcome of the government’s 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review was not as good as the AHRC had hoped, and a package of budgetary savings had to be made.

“The decision wasn’t taken lightly”, he continued, “as I can assure you that the AHRC is hugely committed to the importance of maintaining the health of the arts and humanities disciplines through the postgraduate funding programme.”

But other senior professors were not as charitable about the AHRC’s actions. Professor Quentin Skinner, Regius Professor of Modern History, has heavily criticised the funding cuts.

In an exclusive interview with TCS, the respected academic said that the reduction would “blast apart the prospects of an entire generation of aspiring scholars.”

“It’s been done with very little consultation, it’s been done very fast, and it’s very arbitrary”, Professor Skinner added.

“We’ve now reached the stage where you could be a very well motivated student with a first class degree who wanted to go on to do research in the humanities, and you could still fail.”

When asked if there was a reasonable way of accounting for the funding cuts, he said: “If there is, then I don’t know what it is. Why such a rich and educated country would want this to happen, I don’t know either.

“If they think that they are going to somehow coerce these people into becoming doctors and engineers, then they have a very stupid view about intelligence.

Summing up the impact of the reduction in subsidies on humanities departments, The Regius Professor commented: “This is a stunning blow, there’s no doubt.”

Several University representatives contacted in the course of the investigation told TCS that the institution was taking alternative measures to compensate for the loss of postgraduate subsidies.

A University spokesman said: “Cambridge has, with the Newton Trust, provided funding for next year to make up some of the shortfall in studentships; a letter was recently sent to Colleges asking for them to contribute as well.”

When approached for comment by TCS, an AHRC spokesman said: “We are currently making the transition from 1456 new postgraduate awards in 2007-08 to 1000 in 2008-09 and to 1325 annually thereafter, across the UK.

“We will still invest some 34% of our budget in postgraduate provision, more than other Research Councils. This is further supported by project studentships on research grants and collaborative doctoral awards, funded from our Research Budget, which all help to reverse the decrease.

“In addition we also offer schemes that enable AHRC funded PhD researchers to spend time at the Library of Congress in the USA and in Japan at the National Institute of the Humanities as part of their studies.”