A Degree for Free: Can it be Done?


Yes. That’s the short answer!


Here’s the long answer, for the benefit of anyone contemplating further study and wondering how to achieve it…


I hold four degrees which I didn’t have to pay for, and I know a lot of people who are working towards free degrees too, by different routes. Being paid to study is of course the Holy Grail of student life; but most of us are satisfied with finding a way to dodge the ever-increasing fees. Unfortunately personal finance is rather a taboo subject in Higher Education: so the people who achieve this goal rarely talk about it!


Is it easy?

No. Absolutely not. It’s like applying for a job – and in some cases it does actually involve applying for a job. Sometimes you have to relocate, to follow the money. Sometimes you have to change your plans, or even your subject area. Most of the time, you’re up against steep competition.


Could I do it?

Perhaps. There are several things to think about here – but if you have one or more of the advantages in this list, you’re in with a chance.

  1. Proven ability. This is the big one. Nobody will throw money at you for no reason: organisations have to see evidence that you’re a good investment, that you’ll make them look good. This evidence comes from your track record. That’s why a lot of funding is accessible only for second degrees, not first degrees: you only become eligible once you’ve proven your ability to handle degree-level study. However, you can sometimes prove your ability in other ways, through a successful record of employment or voluntary work in the relevant sector.
  2. A special story. There are a lot of charities out there which offer funding, but their criteria are narrow. They sponsor people from particular backgrounds or countries, people with particular medical conditions or disabilities, or people who want to study in particular areas. It’s an avenue worth exploring if your situation is an unusual one.
  3. A relevant job. This is more common in some subject areas than others, as you can imagine! But if you can demonstrate to your current employer that the components of your degree can be put directly into practice in your place of employment, you can make a good case for sponsorship. Some employers, too, are committed to ‘up-skilling’ their workforce: universities often offer their employees the chance to study courses for free, as professional development.
  4. Perseverance. We’ve all known people who applied for fifty jobs, or a hundred, before they found employment. Well, funding is much the same. You apply, then you apply somewhere else, then you apply to another ten places; and when you fail, you try again the next year, and the next. Perseverance is not to be underestimated in this game.
  5. Being the right person in the right place at the right time with the right proposal. You could call this simply ‘luck’: but it can be achieved by careful planning and targeting of applications. There are a lot of funding opportunities out there which are very specific: and if you can demonstrate that your proposal fits in perfectly with the research interests in that department, and make a persuasive case that you are the best person to carry out that project, you may find yourself first in line for that pot of funding.


As a prospective Classics postgraduate, where do I look for funding?

Here are a few ideas. Some are long shots – but remember the value of perseverance!

  1. Jobs websites. The academic employment website jobs.ac.uk has a ‘Find a PhD’ tab which allows you to see all the funded opportunities currently available, mostly for PhDs but sometimes for Masters degrees too. Most of these are funded by the research councils (in the case of Classics, the AHRC), but they’re funded through the universities: so specific university departments are given some money to spend on a person to carry out a project in a specific area. Right now I can see 11 fully funded studentships in heritage at Hull; a Classics Masters studentship at Cambridge; and several PhD studentships in Classics and Ancient History at Edinburgh. Keep checking: some times of year are much busier than others. These are sought-after opportunities because they pay living expenses too, so naturally they’re very competitive! The postgraduate studentships website is also worth checking out.
  2. University-specific funding. All universities offer their own bursaries and grants, and the OU is no exception. Here’s a selection including small grants for OU graduates and for people with dependents or disabilities. Keep checking the OU Classics site too: sometimes there are subject-specific bursaries. Not the Holy Grail, but better than nothing!
  3. Charities. You can collect charity grants to cover your fees: here’s a story from someone who did it. This is a laborious way of putting together the funding, but very possible if you’re dedicated enough!
  4. Postgraduate loans. These are fairly new, and operate on broadly the same principles as undergraduate loans. There are three key points for OU students: you can’t get a loan if you already have a Masters degree, or if you’re over 60, or if you spend more than two years studying for a part-time Masters. It’s worth checking this out, because this option is becoming increasingly popular, and it’s opening up postgraduate study to people who have never been able to afford it before. You start paying the loan back once your income tops £21,000: but if it never does, this effectively becomes a free degree!


There are plenty of other possibilities, from sponsorship to crowdfunding (yes, it’s been known to work!). Personally, I’ve used a combination of bursaries, scholarships, prizes, Research Council funding (three years of luxury!) and employer support; all have involved hard work, perseverance and a generous dollop of luck. But as my grandmother used to say, ‘Shy bairns get nowt’, and nowhere is that more true than in the convoluted world of funding!


Cora Beth Knowles


If you have a funding story (successful or otherwise) do share it through the Comments box below.

2 thoughts on “A Degree for Free: Can it be Done?

  1. Hello,

    This is a really interesting post and it has struck a chord with me! As always, juggling work with study is difficult and more so when you have to juggle study with a tight budget! On the whole I’ve been lucky and have managed to apply for various awards over the years that have significantly reduced the costs of my undergraduate degree. For my MA I simply saved up and paid for the first module but I’m conscious that part two is double the price. I’m 100% committed to the degree and will find a way to cover the costs, but it is always in the back of my mind. This year I have made an application to the OU Crowther Fund in the hope that I can get some limited funding, if not I will need to look at the OUSBA or personal loan options!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s