Introduction to postgraduate funding in the UK

Getting funding for a postgraduate course is a little more complicated than for an undergraduate degree, principally because there isn’t a universal graduate student loan system in operation. There are three general ways of funding graduate courses:

  • Studentships, scholarships and bursaries from centralised sources such as universities/research councils/government/EU/British Council
  • Awards or sponsorship from third-party or non-government sources, such as charities or commercial organisations
  • Paying for the course yourself (possibly with help or a loan – particularly if you are eligible for a masters loan).

With changes to taught course funding and increasing competition for financial support, it is becoming more common for postgraduates to use a combination of these methods to fund courses.

Is it difficult to get funding?

Obtaining postgraduate funding in the UK is competitive. An increase in demand, cuts in budgets, changes in research council funding, and the economic climate are just some of the reasons that realism is key when working out whether you can afford postgrad study. Nevertheless, with tens of millions in funding on offer, from the £50 book award to a full research council studentship, why shouldn’t you succeed?

Though it may be more difficult funding some subjects than others, it is certainly not mission impossible. What it really comes down to is how much funding you can access.

  • Research – the key is to do your research and find all of the opportunities that apply to you and your circumstances. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The more applications you make, the more likely you are to receive funding.
  • Realism – you do need to be realistic about what you want to study and how likely that is as an area to receive funding. You can’t alter research council priority areas. Some areas are going to be more competitive than others, so use your time wisely. Likewise, if an award stipulates that you must have exhausted all other potential avenues, make sure that you demonstrate that you have. At the risk of sounding like an inspirational quote poster, funding is one of those areas where you get out what you put in.
  • Timing – don’t lose out on awards that you’d be perfect for just because you missed the deadline for applications. Check closing dates and get your application in early.

More on different funding sources

So which comes first: funding or the course?

For some people it is the chicken, for some the egg – either way, spending time reflecting on what is most important to you could help to avoid costly regrets later down the line.

For example, if your partner is still studying or you have a family and you need to stay in the area that will override an offer of a partial scholarship elsewhere unless that course has a flexible learning option. If you have two PhD offers, one at Cambridge with no funding and one at Edinburgh with full funding and a supervisor that you admire, Scotland might outweigh anything the Fens can offer you. The law firm you want to join only accepts candidates who studied the BPTC at Cardiff, it will have to be Cardiff or another law firm – which is most important?

Consider what needs to happen to make things possible for you or what might limit your choices:

  • Do you need funding to make studying possible at all?
  • How much funding do you need?
  • Would you consider taking out a loan if you don’t get centralised funding?
  • Could you work?
  • Is there a similar course offered at a different institution?
  • Do you want to stay in a particular part of the country?
  • Is the research group or the facilities that you need at one specific university?
  • Would your living costs be considerably less at one university than another (for example if you lived at home)?

Reframing your options

Try reframing your options to see if you’ve missed any ‘wiggle room’ before you make any compromises (applicable to some courses more than others).

– Is the course offered part-time so you can work towards fees and gain experience while studying?

– Are there online options for the course that could allow you to reduce your living costs by staying with family or friends?

– Can you live off campus if this will allow you to find cheaper accommodation and make the cost more affordable?

– Would portfolio funding (small amounts of funding from a series of different sources) help you to take a place on a course without having to borrow large amounts of money?

– Does the university let you pay over a series of instalments to spread the cost?

– Is work available on campus or in the department?

– Are there alumni discounts or early payment discounts that reduce the cost?

Factors that can force your hand

Course requirements – some universities’ scholarships call for applicants to have a confirmed place before applying for the scholarship. Some will allow you to apply for funding and a course place at the same time.

Fully subscribed course – apply early to make sure that you get an offer of a place. Leaving it late could mean that you miss out on a place and any discounts or financial help that come with it.

Research council funding not available – not all higher education institutions receive funding from the research councils that covers a particular area of research. Check the research council website to see which institutions receive funding.

Your subject area – to some extent, your options are dependent on your choice of course too (some subjects carry specific bursaries, or enjoy generous research funding).

Funding criteria – check the funding criteria. Would you be eligible for an award given for academic excellence or the basis of financial need?