The Rise of the Self-Funded Studentship and What It Says About Academia (and Academics)

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 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 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.

14 thoughts on “The Rise of the Self-Funded Studentship and What It Says About Academia (and Academics)

  1. I so completely agree with you. We should vehemently resist this trend. But a lot of the pressure for compliance with these new obligations comes from the natural sciences.

  2. Maybe the professional associations could take a lead & develop a code of practice for researchers as line managers?

    How do you mean about the natural sciences? The bench fees?

  3. Yes, clearly there is some collusion going on here in the natural sciences between academics and their university. Or they have succumbed! I don’t think that in the social sciences we’ve gone about this with such enthusiasm! We’ve perhaps been more passive, keeping our heads in the sand. What I also mean is that if they do it, it gives the whole process legitimacy. So if/when we resist, we’re confronting not only policy but legitimating practices from a community which has greater influence than us.

  4. Hmm that’s really interesting, it’s occurring to me that you can use the rise of this practice as a way of tracing out a much broader set of transformations within higher education.

  5. I spotted one of these last month, shared on Twitter, though can’t remember what it was now (something arts/humanities, as that’s my field). I clicked the link to read the description, hoping to share it myself and perhaps help someone out, then was surprised when I spotted that it was self-funded. I didn’t share it because I don’t want to encourage this culture of exploitation in academia. I wonder if other people sharing it had noticed that it was self-funded, and would have thought twice about sharing if they had; it was the first time I’d seen a described project with no funding attached.

  6. Providing this Self-funded studentship program, another factor to be considered would be targeted group. Most importantly sub-sahara and West Africa. Not to mention the lots from under developed nations.

    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless handheld from Glo Mobile.

  7. I’m not particularly well connected, but I know of two young lecturers in arts subjects who have gone part-time because they don’t need the money and would rather spend their time writing than doing endless repeat teaching. Academia looks increasingly like a hobby rather than a career.

  8. You’ve misread the post. I’m not saying it’s problematic because it’s self-funded. I’m saying it’s problematic because the role is effectively that of a research assistant on an already planned & developed project.

  9. I find it hard to see how this can be defended: “I want someone to pay to be my underling for 3 years. If you obey me then I’ll maybe help you get a doctorate out of it”

  10. Due to certain factors unrelated to the application process for my PhD, we were faced with the choice between accepting the “sure thing” or hoping that I made it off the waitlist at other schools and/or was fully accepted upon second application round. The catch? The sure thing was a school that offered me no funding, and refused to even consider waiving the $46k per year tuition. If I had it to do again, I probably would have rejected the ‘sure thing’ – note: not because the money is too impossible to overcome, but because my status made every moment of my program was a constant fight to obtain anything close to the networking, the ‘required’ teaching and research jobs (note: required seems nice if you had to beg for something to fill that space on the CV), or support of my peers. This had two outcomes that made life more miserable than I can express without sounding melodramatic: (1) my peers noticed that the professors did not give the same deference to the unfunded, which after three years begins to look a lot like disrespect; (2) the “quid pro quo” that you spoke of is more than transactional, it is the school expressing their desire that the student succeeds. If you do not receive funding then you, simply put, will matter to no one – especially the administration. It conveys the sense that the student must always be accommodated rather than supported. The PhD process (at least in the US) is incredibly taxing on the student’s sense of self, on his/her relationships, and confidence in one’s abilities is constantly shaken. Trying to complete a PhD without funding is the emotional/psychological equivalent of all that, but with the addition of the drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket” screaming at you “Now choke yourself! I SAID CHOKE YOURSELF! Did you hear me private?” *muffled gasping* “sir, yes sir”…”I can’t hear you. Sound off like you mean it, Private Pyle!”

    Course, this feeling wasn’t helped by being told I would be reconsidered for funding based upon my grades and performance (4.0 during first two semesters). After professors volunteered to write rec letters, the administrator denied he had ever said such a crazy thing! In some ways it is far worse than something like volunteer labor or an unpaid internship. Those do not place a status on one person that is different from his/her peers, nor do such enterprises treat you so poorly when you are the only one paying the full price for the ‘privilege’. It’s a sad thing to witness one’s aspirations and self confidence get just destroyed to the point that the career you loved and could not wait to pursue is a daily emotional drain. Thankfully, I somehow made it to candidacy swimming upstream the entire way – the lack of a funding package somehow caused me to be overlooked when creating the department wide emails mentorship positions. Without all of this nonsense a PhD is already extremely difficult just from an emotional and personal relationship stand point, but at least one knows that this is the career path to which they are ‘called’ so strongly that doing anything else seems intolerable. Moreover, acceptance and funding has affirmed that the student doesn’t just think they are qualified, but through ongoing support the school believes the student is shown that they have talents and qualities predisposed to the career they are pursuing for years already. Take that away, and a student is basically told their qualifications are questionable. every day. through language exams. massive writing and research assignments. comps. and every single seminar. I entered the program knowing three reading languages, a 3.98 GPA, and recs from renowned chaired professors. Yet, looking back, the experience was so incredibly miserable and lacking in dignity – it was years of being overwhelmed by comments from peers and professors regarding my abilities, and pleading for the normal duties of a doctoral student (teaching and research) so that my CV would not be swaths of blank space. It’s time to muster the energy, time to rally, and just get through the dissertation…I thought it would simply be a lack of funds and manageable – I didn’t realize that would eventually make it difficult to put one foot in front of the other because of the self doubt.

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