I see the ‘self-funded studentship’ as a sign of everything that is wrong with higher education. Take this example I just encountered. It is for a PhD student to work on a fully developed project. I’ve always understood the funding attached to such an arrangement as a quid pro quo: intellectual autonomy is sacrificed in return for the guarantee of funding. In some cases, it might be actively desirable to work as part of an established project and my impression has been the mentoring relationship can be more active and hands-on in an arrangement of this sort. In other words, it’s completely fine if you’re offering the student funding. Unfortunately such ‘self-funded studentships’ do not do this:
This project is offered on a self-funding basis. It is open to applicants with funding or those applying to funding sources. Details of tuition fees can be found at http://www.uea.ac.uk/pgresearch/pgrfees. A bench fee is also payable on top of the tuition fee to cover specialist equipment or laboratory costs required for the research. The amount charged annually will vary considerably depending on the nature of the project and applicants should contact the primary supervisor for further information about the fee associated with the project.
Not only are tuition fees still required but there’s an additional ‘bench fee’. The student is in effect being asked to pay for the opportunity to be an unpaid research assistant for three years. It’s like auctioning off internships to the highest bidder but with the selection being made on the basis of quality & suitability (within the cohort of those able to finance this) rather than on a crudely financial basis.
I can understand why this would be attractive to the academic: you get a research assistant working for you for three years on your project without the hassle of winning funding to support them. The structural constraint is passed downards through a hierarchy: it enables academics to pursue their projects in a difficult environment by passing these costs on to those aspiring to one day occupy the academic’s place within the occupational hierarchy.
But how on earth does this seem ok to people? Practices like this are going to proliferate over the coming years, as individually rational (though morally condemnable) responses to a structural squeeze on funding. If I’m right that they’re only going to grow with time then do we need to start pre-emptively campaigning to prohibit these arrangements? My fear is that much like ‘research internships’, not only do these reward the already privileged who are able to work for free, they’re likely to undermine the assumption that this work should be paid. It becomes much easier to justify it once the practice becomes widespread.
There are 21 self-funded studentships currently listed on jobs.ac.uk at present. It seems urgent to me that we track how these and associated phenomena are spreading as a preliminary to opposing them. I’m quite busy though – perhaps I should recruit an intern to help me with the project. After all, everyone else seems to be doing it so it must be ok.