The process for obtaining funding for graduate work in the UK seems much different than it is in the US. In particular, in the UK, funding decisions often come after offers of admission. What is the process by which a good, accepted graduate application at, say, Oxford, is given funding?
The funding depends on your nationality/residence by a lot, as well as the field, the university, and the supervisor.
UK or EEA residents can get funding from national research councils (such as ESPRC, STFC and many more) which give them (usually) the cost of tuition plus a small living stipend (when I was applying the living wage was about £13,000).
Non UK/EEA people generally have to self-fund outside of a few special circumstances (competitive international scholarships such as Rhodes, university bursaries for internationals). This is very very rare. However, it's not terribly uncommon to see students from an above-average financial situation self-funding, but then they need to pay not only their living costs, but also the cost of tuition (at my old university it was about £20k per year for international students).
So what happens is that you apply, and then you will be (hopefully) asked for an interview. If you are able to compete for the 'normal' funding pot, you will be interviewed much the same way as everyone else. First a shortlist, then the interviews, and maybe follow-up interviews will be used to select the best candidates from the pool of applicants. If you're non-UK/EEA, you may or may not interview with everyone else; it's up to the university. If they don't have the money to fund you, many departments will make you an offer anyway (especially for foreign students) which you will usually have several months to accept or decline.
The research councils will grant the department a certain number of PhD studentship bursaries, and they will distribute them. From what I've seen, you don't have to do much self-application for scholarships unless you're foreign. Though you will always be told where the money is coming from, and there may be some requirements (a yearly seminar, for example) to get the money.
If you are given a stipend, it is tax-free, unlike in many other countries. Your funding is all-inclusive, not split up into RA or TA like in the US. You can normally make extra money marking coursework or demonstrating in labs, although the 'estimated number of hours' taken by these activities doesn't always match up with the actual number of hours you spend on them !
As you say, an offer of a place is a different thing to an offer of funding. There are more places than there is funding, but not an infinite supply.
How each university/department handles this will vary. When I applied for maths at Oxford, everyone at the graduate open day was confused until we were told that they basically assume anyone who applies for funding won't come without it, so act accordingly until fairly late in the application cycle.
Funding also comes from different sources. Confirmation of funding will come at different points in the year. Some funding is specific to a particular project, so will be entirely linked to a specific place. Other funding may not be open to some students. Students can apply at different points in the year.
Basically researchers want the best students they can get, and they mostly expect to only get those by finding funding for them somehow. Unless you can fund yourself, an offer-with-funding is the only bit of interest to most people. The process of getting that depends on how obtaining the funding works, as some scholarships might need an offer of a place before you can apply.
The process of allocating graduate studentships is a nightmare. Funding for graduate students comes from a number of sources including
- External funding (from the research councils, charities, industry etc.) to named supervisors
- External funding to the department
- External funding to the university
- Internal funding to named supervisors
- Internal funding to the department
- The department budget
Each one of these funding sources has constraints on who it can be given to. For example, external funding to an individual PI/CI is generally associated with a particular project. Conversely, the department budget can nominally be used for any student, but promises have often been made to individual faculty. When then department know the funding is available is often variable. For example funding from Doctoral Training Center grants to the university is often managed by a committee who look at students who are nominated by various departments.
There is also the issue of when the different sources of funding get confirmed. Grants come in at all times. The department budget is often not set until after decisions are made. Decisions about how to allocate funding from Doctoral Training Grants/Centres often require accepted and nominated students.
My department allocates funding in the following manner. We rank the students. Students of supervisors who have a dedicated source for them (external, internal, departmental) get told they have been accepted with funding. We then work our way down the rankings trying to find students most competitive for other sources of funding (e.g., DTG or University funding). Sometimes a very low ranked student might be the best candidate for a potential funding stream. We then more or less work our way down the rankings deciding if we want to guarantee funding for each student until we run out of guaranteed funding (e.g., departmental budget). As we start to run low on money (the last 1 or 2 students), we might shuffle the rankings to account for the cost of the student or the supervisor. Sometimes we will go over budget with the intention of either covering the shortfall from unknown sources or stealing from future budgets. Students are then told 5 things: unfunded, funding conditional on obtaining the particular nominated source, guaranteed but the student must apply for a particular source of funding, and funded.