Poor less likely to study for PhD

Poor less likely to study for PhD

Mark Rodgers
Published: 04August2006

A career in academe may become the preserve of the rich, research suggests.

Mark Rodgers reports

Future academics are likely to come predominantly from wealthy backgrounds as fear of debt deters students from taking postgraduate degrees, a report warns this week.

Two separate studies suggest that students from poor backgrounds are much less likely to consider postgraduate study, including PhDs - the first step in an academic career.

Simon Felton, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC), said: "Debt is a major concern for students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are academically able but particularly fearful of debt or the possibility of debt."

The comments follow the findings of a joint survey by the NPC and the graduate jobs website Prospects. It found that 77 per cent of potential postgraduates from working-class backgrounds said that financial considerations and concern about debt had a very strong influence on their decision whether to enter postgraduate study. This compared with 33 per cent of those from upper middle-class backgrounds.

Mr Felton said: "We won't necessarily see the implications of this for ten or fifteen years, when the current crop of academics retires and we are unable to fill academic positions or we fill them with those not reflecting the diversity of wider society."

The findings of the survey, which included responses from 1,046 prospective and current postgraduate students from 126 institutions, will be presented at the NPC conference this week.

The findings are supported by a separate paper by Paul Wakeling, a researcher at Manchester University's School of Social Sciences. This study found that among graduates with a first-class honours degree, those from the highest social classes were nearly three times more likely to progress to a research degree than graduates from the lowest social classes.

Mr Wakeling, who is presenting an overview of research on participation in postgraduate education at the conference, welcomed the NPC survey.

"Their finding that less well-off students cite debt as a discouraging factor mirrors similar findings for access to undergraduate study, with the added complication that such people now have real debts," he said.

Mr Wakeling added that his findings suggested that social class did affect participation in postgraduate study. "This is particularly true for research degrees, where what little evidence we have suggests some underrepresentation of those from working-class backgrounds."

He said that there was a risk that future academics would come primarily from the highest social groups, but he added that academics today did not reflect the diversity of wider society.

Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK GRAD programme, said: "The UK does not have a widening-access policy for postgraduate researchers. Given the ageing and skewed demographics of our academic community, we need to look at ways to encourage more able students from all backgrounds to consider postgraduate study."