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Concerns raised over future diversity and vitality of arts and humanities research as the number of UK-based doctoral students being funded nearly halves in the space of four years.

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The number of UK-based students studying for PhDs funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has nearly halved since 2018/2019.

Data obtained via a Freedom of Information request by Times Higher Education shows that in 2018/19, the organisation funded a total of 1,010 doctoral students - 657 of which (65%) were based in the UK.

For 2022/23, it funded 660 places - of which 356 (54%) were domestic students. This means that the overall number of UK-based students has dropped by 45.8%.


AHRC is one of seven disciplinary research councils making up UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a non-departmental public body established by government to direct research and innovation funding.

UKRI figures across all academic disciplines show a decrease of 28.3% between 2018/19 and 2022/23 in UKRI-funded places for doctoral starters in any subject, with the number of PhD places awarded to UK-based students dropping by 41%.

UKRI says figures for the most recent year, 2022/23, are "likely to be underestimates" because there is a lag between students being registered by research organisations and the organisations adding those students to UKRI data. Overall figures for 2021/22 show a 29% reduction in UK candidates in any subject to 3,420,  down from 4,815 in 2018/19. 

The drop coincides with UKRI’s decision in 2021-22 to extend full PhD studentships to international students.

A decline in doctoral funding for UK students will compound existing concerns over competition for AHRC-supported PhD places.

In September, AHRC, which has a budget of £82m this year, announced it would cut the number of PhD students it funds by almost a third amid cost pressures caused by reduced funding and higher doctoral stipends.

It said that the number of students it supports via doctoral training partnerships will be reduced to 300 a year by 2029/30 to enable “strategic investments” in other areas.

'Stifling creativity and new ideas'

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer London Higher, told Arts Professional that the decline in domestic PhD students supported by AHRC “raises concerns" about the future of UK arts and humanities research. She warned the trend could have "significant implications" for the "vitality and diversity of research in these disciplines” and urged the government to reevaluate and prioritise support for arts and humanities research.

“A reduction in funding may limit the ability of aspiring researchers to pursue their academic ambitions, stifling creativity and new ideas. It will certainly intensify competition for grants, the impact of which will be felt most acutely by prospective doctoral students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are already statistically least likely to secure research council funding.

"Depriving the academic community of this vital diversity of perspectives will only serve to impoverish UK humanities research," she said.

“A smaller pool of researchers in these disciplines may, as a consequence, impact the global standing of UK higher education in these fields. A sustained commitment to fostering intellectual growth and providing financial assistance to PhD students will be vital in maintaining the UK’s reputation as a powerhouse for humanities research.”

Sustainable, scalable, equitable

In response to the figures, UKRI noted it has updated its policy on support for international students following the end of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, capping the number of international students at 30%. It is also reviewing the support available to students, particularly those with disabilities, or childcare or caring responsibilities.

A spokesperson for UKRI said: “We are committed to ensuring that our doctoral training investments are sustainable, scalable and equitable and address both skills gaps in key sectors and diversity across the ecosystem.

“UKRI continues to work with the sector to monitor the rate of doctoral studentships and consider how best to invest public money that ensures students are appropriately supported, and we can meet the government’s ambitions.”

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