The postgraduate scholarship process is a tedious business for everyone. But it is a living nightmare for working-class students. Specifically, it is a nightmare in which you’re being chased by a ravenous monster – who bears an uncanny resemblance to both your landlord and your university bursar – while searching desperately for one of the rare stashes of cash with which you can stop its jaws and prevent it from devouring your academic career.
When I was applying for funding to continue in UK academia beyond my undergraduate degree, the stakes were pretty much all-or-nothing. I could either secure a scholarship or I could leave. At the time, the only other alternative to working myself to death was a high-interest Career Development Loan, but the bank turned me down (perhaps fortunately, as it probably would have ruined me anyway).
These days, things are a little easier, with income-contingent loans of about £11,000 being available to master’s students and around £26,000 to doctoral candidates. However, with PhDs requiring a level of commitment akin to that of a full-time job, you don’t need an economics doctorate to see that that latter figure in particular – spread over three or four years – does not add up.
I was lucky in that, in the end, I managed to secure scholarships for both my MA and PhD. However, the years I spent applying and reapplying for every fund I could find were tainted by the stress of knowing that my entire future hinged on a glorified raffle. Time and again, I would meet the criteria, only to be rejected with no explanation of how exactly I fell short.
Scholarship allocation is uniquely brutal process because the difference between first and second place is the same as the difference between first and last. The winner takes it all. And I’m not just talking about the money, because the funding element of scholarships is often secondary to their status as academic badges of honour. That is hugely frustrating for those of us for whom the money is much more than just a nice-to-have top-up of other income sources.
I’ve spoken to academics who told me that they felt bad accepting their scholarship because they knew they were taking it from somebody who probably needed it more. They only did so, they explained, because they knew that putting “recipient of Scholarship X” on their CV would make it much easier to get a lectureship in the future. And, honestly, I don’t blame them. Academia is vicious; you need any edge you can get to survive. I’d probably have taken the money too.
The underlying problem isn’t with those ambivalent recipients but with a system that pretends that money is a minor impediment to learning while, at the same time, charging more than £9,000 a year for the privilege of attending a Zoom meeting. Maybe that’s uncharitable, but forgive me for being a little frustrated that every single university in the UK treats the only financial life raft it offers its postgraduates as akin to a big “well done” sticker. Working-class students are only 28 per cent as likely to obtain a postgraduate degree as their more well-off peers, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the situation is that scholarships are available to people for reasons other than academic merit. There are plenty of funds that exclusively target women, refugees, BAME students, second-generation immigrants, disabled people and a host of other demographics. The logic behind many of these is that such groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to education. I don’t dispute that they are worthy of additional support; a person from a BAME background is indeed disproportionately likely to experience economic hardship. But do you know who definitely experiences economic hardship? Poor people.
Targeting identity groups because they might be struggling financially while simultaneously ignoring the entire working class is like starting a scholarship for people with the same surname as you because you once lost a tenner in the wash. That might sound frivolous, but it’s akin to what Dennis J. Doherty of Lynnfield, Massachusetts did when establishing the O’Connor scholarship, a €10,000 (£9,000) fund targeted specifically at University College Cork postgraduates with – you guessed it – the surname O’Connor. That is his choice, of course; he did it to commemorate his wife, whose maiden name was O’Connor. But institutions have an obligation to point out to potential donors that directing their largesse towards those who actually need it might amount to a more substantial and ethical contribution to human knowledge.
Sadly, however, I fear that nothing is going to change until working-class people flood the halls of the academy and create an environment that understands the value of money – and the practical, material consequences of not having any. But to get there, of course, we’d need to have already woken up and ended the funding nightmare that puts the academic ambitions of so many less privileged people into a permanent sleep.
Author Bio: Ryan Coogan is a PhD student in literature at Liverpool John Moores University.