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Another Brick in the Postgrad Wall

Matthew Prudham reflects on the trials of Master's and Doctoral degree funding.

Right now, as I come to the end of my MSt at Oxford, I have felt as if I’ve been in a sort of no man’s land. I had spent, like many others in master’s courses, most of the Christmas vacation researching, writing and applying for PhD/DPhil places, whilst also carrying on with work – not much of a break, I guess. Yet, as I sit here writing this piece, I have only just found out that my l luck just ran out, and I’ll have to take a gap year before embarking on another application process. 

The question mark since receiving my offers (for which I was incredibly grateful) has been daunting. It hangs over you in moments before going to sleep. I’m not someone who deals well with a lack of a future plan. But it’s exacerbated by the fact that I simply do not know how close I was to securing funding: two institutions informed me (Durham and Oxford) that I was not allocated funding; from the other one, it’s silence after receiving an offer. 

The system is also reliant on students having the means to take a year out; one receives more ‘points’ for a completed master’s degree rather than having one in progress. It does somewhat make sense on a financial viewpoint — funding bodies want to ensure that the money they commit goes to the top candidates — but it also socially discriminates against students from working class backgrounds. I am in a fortunate position where taking year out and moving back home would be an option; but in a subject as middle-class, home-counties, private school-background dominated as Classics, I know there are others for whom this is simply not an option — a lack of a safe home space, a necessity to support oneself. For a person in their position, the silence they receive could be even more distressing; you can find out at any point — today, tomorrow, or in mid-July — and then suddenly find yourself jettisoned into a thrilling academic career; or you could keep hoping for that one email or phone call, and it never comes. The mental health toll is sizeable. 

Some do say that ‘if you don’t hear back after a certain date, please assume you’re not receiving our funding’, as if it’s acceptable. It’s certainly not. I understand that these funding sites are greatly oversubscribed, but all it takes is a simple, respectful BCC send-to-all  because these systems can end up being delayed, especially during a pandemic with panels ending up meeting virtually rather than in-person. I’d much rather have my hopes crushed properly and politely rather than them withering out, several months later. 

There’s another health aspect at hand. You could spend another four, five hours a day applying for additional funding, sending emails doubtful of a response, and scouring the internet for what’s available. Again, that’s inherently discriminatory and ableist. I, as someone with a long-standing epilepsy condition, cannot risk staying up until 2 or 3am, night after night, in this scholastic espionage — I need my sleep! That means I’m definitively at a worse chance of securing funding — since I’m not able to spend the hours required online. It should be readily accessible, with clear guides.

Indeed, having spoken to a few professors and staff in the faculty, they aren’t even clear about how the system works — even though they’ve managed to receive funding. Yet, they also know the system needs to change, that master’s students should be able to progress to the next level without this secondment back home. This is a way is comforting yet troubling; for sure, they sympathise and may have endured the same journey as myself, but I’m not sure when this change will occur. 

That being said, I’m fortunate at least that some potential funding options may have, if I were (incredibly?) lucky, come my way. Yet, to even reach this step, I had to go via a master’s. Master’s funding is even harder to come by; as funding has been continually slashed from 2011 onwards — when the Arts and Humanities Research Council announced that they were cutting funded master’s courses from 607 to 490.  That’s not a lot. My course alone takes on 25 students, and there is a wide smorgasbord of potential arts and humanities courses at Oxford alone, from Latin American Studies to Film Aesthetics, all vying with hundreds of other UK institutions for these grants. Some institutions are trying to make these courses affordable; Durham, from where I (virtually) graduated in 2020, offers a 25% alumni discount on all its courses, which are significantly cheaper than those offered at Oxford (the price for my current course goes above the maximum loan threshold). Again, therefore — and this is a current theme on master’s discourse online —, it is restrictive to those who can affordto have family support or who balance with their either full-time or part-time master’s workload, impressively, with a part-time job.  

Is there hope for change in the humanities, as the current Government aims to marginalise arts and humanities degrees, despite the fact that the vast majority of the current cabinet graduated from such courses? It’s hard to say yes. But, a more open system, where funding options are clear, where rejection is forthcoming, would lead to fewer students congregating in the virtual halls of The Student Room, wondering what is going on amongst the (currently virtual) decision-making panels. 

Image credit: Billy Watson Photography / License: CC BY-NC

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