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Public funding for research projects at universities in the UK is distributed by seven Research Councils, each of which focusses on a particular set of academic disciplines.
Part of their responsibility involves supporting postgraduate training for potential new researchers (like you!). The Research Councils are therefore one of the most important providers of funding for Masters and PhD programmes.
This page will give you an introduction to how Research Council funding works and the circumstances in which it may be available for Masters study.
Operated by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Research Councils are seven organisations that distribute public funding for research in certain academic disciplines.
We’ve written introductions to the different Research Councils, the postgraduate funding they provide and the subjects they cover:
Occasionally the Research Councils also collaborate on cross-disciplinary research that falls under the remit of more than one body.
The Research Councils support research by granting ‘blocks’ of institutional funding to consortia (associations) of universities, which is then distributed among the members.
These consortia come in two forms:
As their names suggest, both types of consortia are mainly concerned with ‘doctoral training’ – supporting researchers at PhD level.
This means that relatively little Research Council support is now available specifically for Masters degrees. Instead, support for Masters-level postgraduate study is provided by postgraduate student loans.
Some Research Council funding for taught postgraduate study is available, however – particularly for programmes designed to prepare for (or lead directly into) PhD-level research.
For more information on how Research Council funding works for doctoral students, please read our dedicated guide on FindAPhD, with details on applications, eligibility and more.
The two most common types of Research Council funding for Masters degrees are:
Though both types of funding are comparatively scarce, they are worth investigating – particularly if you already intend to continue on to PhD-level work.
If you win funding for a Research Preparation Masters, this will certainly impress potential supervisors (and PhD funders).
Alternatively, securing funding for an Integrated (or ‘1+3’) Masters and PhD programme will not only provide you with an excellent route into doctoral research, it will also take care of your postgraduate financial needs in one go!
Masters funding from Research Councils will normally provide sufficient funds to meet the cost of tuition fees, plus a maintenance grant to cover accommodation, living costs and other expenses incurred during the duration of a programme.
The size of this maintenance grant varies from award to award, but is usually set by the Research Council. Slightly more maintenance funding will normally be granted to students in London, reflecting the higher cost of living in the capital.
Under normal circumstances, all UK and EU students are eligible for Research Council funding.
However, EU students will usually only be entitled to a ‘fees only’ award: funding that covers the cost of tuition on a Masters programme, but does not include a maintenance grant to cover living costs (exceptions may apply if you’ve lived in the UK for more than three years).
For more information on eligibility and restrictions for Research Council funding, see the official guidelines published by UK Research and Innovation.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) supports research into the history, ideas and materials associated with different cultures, enabling reflection on the human experience and contemporary creative endeavours.
AHRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as:
Since 2014, the AHRC has awarded most of its funding to 11 consortia of institutions collaborating as Doctoral Training Partnerships. Some individual universities within these DTPs use their funding allocation to support Research Preparation Masters and Professional Preparation Masters schemes.
You can view a list of AHRC Doctoral Training Partnerships, with contact details, at the AHRC website.
The AHRC also funds a number of Centres for Doctoral Training, but these mainly focus on PhD projects addressing specific topics.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) supports academic research in Bioscience subject areas and funds the development of new biotechnologies and tools for biological research. Note that research into disease and abnormal biological function is usually the domain of the Medical Research Council.
BBSRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as:
The BBSRC supports PhD programmes through Doctoral Training Partnerships. Some of these may fund four-year PhD projects that include training, or provide support for Integrated (1+3) Masters and PhD programmes.
In the past, some BBSRC funding for taught postgraduate courses has been available through the Modular Training Partnerships scheme.
This programme supported postgraduate training modules at Masters level, using partnerships between industry employers and research organisations. Such funding was provided for existing employees to meet specific continuing professional development needs. However, the scheme was discontinued in 2016 and is no longer accepting funding applications.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) supports research in Physical Sciences, Engineering, Information and Computer Technology and Mathematics. It also assesses the technological, social and economic implications of developments in these subject areas.
EPSRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subjects such as:
EPSRC funding for postgraduate study is directed at PhD-level research, supported at universities through Doctoral Training Partnerships. Some of these may allocate funding to Integrated Programmes, combining a Masters degree with PhD research.
Alternatively, if you already plan to continue on to PhD-level research after your Masters, you could apply to one of the EPSRC’s Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs).
These offer four-year PhD programmes addressing particular research topics, in which the first year provides skills training similar to that acquired through a taught Masters degree.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) supports research in various branches of Economics, Business and Social Sciences, along with work addressing Politics, Social Policy and International Relations.
ESRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as:
The ESRC periodically allocates funding to Masters programmes in response to specific training aims. These will usually be offered through institutions operating as part of Doctoral Training Centres.
ESRC DTCs may also offer funding for Integrated or ‘1+3’ programmes, combining Masters and PhD degrees. You can view more information at the ESRC website.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) supports research into diseases and pathology, along with improvements in medicine and medical practice.
MRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as:
The MRC provides most of its postgraduate funding to Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). It encourages individual universities within these to provide Masters training on a 1+3 model (integrating Masters and PhD study) if they wish.
In addition, a small amount of MRC funding is available for Advanced Course Masters (ACMs) through DTPs. Programmes funded in this way must be research-based (an MRes degree, for example) and must target specific subject areas identified by the MRC. You can read more about Advanced Course Masters at the MRC website.
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) supports research into Environmental Sciences, including the investigation of Earth’s ecology, geology, archaeology and natural processes.
NERC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as:
At present, the NERC does not fund Masters degrees directly, but support for Integrated Masters and PhD programmes may be offered through its Doctoral Training Partnerships (block studentship funding for university consortia) and Centres for Doctoral Training (for research on specified topics).
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) supports research into physical science, engineering and technology subjects that depend on substantial facilities and infrastructure investment.
STFC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in appropriate branches of:
The STFC does not fund Masters degrees directly, but Integrated Programmes may be supported at institutions within its Doctoral Training Partnerships.
Don’t worry if you aren’t successful in finding or winning Research Council funding for your Masters degree.
The reality is that the Research Councils no longer provide extensive support for Masters-level postgraduate study. The awards that are available will also receive far more applicants than they can fund, with many exceptionally good students being declined.
The good news is that the Research Councils are far from the only organisations offering support for Masters degrees.
If you’re a UK or EU student who would normally be eligible for Research Council funding, you could be able to apply for a postgraduate loan from the UK Government.
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have postgraduate loan schemes offering varying levels of financial support. Depending on your situation, you could be eligible for a Masters loan of up to £11,222.
Last updated - 05/05/2020