The graduate scramble for places on the controversial MRes degree has taken the research councils by surprise and been cautiously welcomed by other higher education bodies.
The embattled MRes was the baby of the 1993 science White Paper. The Government wanted to make the MRes a compulsory path to a PhD so that graduates would be better trained. The idea was so unpopular with academic bodies and unions that it was withdrawn last October.
But much as the protesters disliked the idea of centralised control of postgraduate research, they agreed that a small-scale and non-compulsory MRes might work .
The Government invited universities and research councils to pilot the course. No more money was provided but the councils have found the funds to offer more than 250 studentships to 23 universities.
David Brown, of the Natural Environment Research Council says he has been "gobsmacked by the massive response to the 45 studentships on offer".
And Patrick McKenna, dean of the faculty of science at Ulster University, says he has had more than 400 applications - many from overseas - for the 25 MRes courses his university is piloting in the sciences, informatics and humanities.
University College London's archaeology department began an MRes-type course for two students last year, entitled research methods for the humanities. Ellen Swift found British Academy funding and says it has been "really useful as a preparation for a PhD. It has given me a good grounding in research techniques like literature searches and presentation. I have also been able to do a module in German, which I will need formy PhD".
She thinks that her MRes will give her the edge when she competes for PhD funding from the British Academy. "The BA likes postgraduates to do a preliminary year. The MRes has given me a breathing space to start constructing my PhD and has enabled me to get my foot in the door."
Ulster University's programme for the MRes suggests that it can be used to understand and play the research system. MRes graduates, the programme states, will become familiar with the research process (thesis writing, grant applications and information gathering and presentation) as well as with the wider context of Government policy towards research and funding.
Nigel Percival, UCL's assistant registrar for admissions, admits that most students will use the course to beat others to doctorate funding.
"Because it has become increasingly difficult even for top-class students to get funding, the MRes is a good way for students to get into a department and get to know their supervisors' interests.
"There is no doubt that students with an MRes will be in a strong position to get further funding."
He said that applicants have been attracted to the MRes because research council awards are up for grabs. "Applicants see an advert, they know that the money is there and that it is generous. It's natural that they go for it."
But he insisted that the degree should not be seen just as an inside track to a PhD. UCL's programme stresses that links with industry will be promoted and that there will be training in communication and interpersonal skills which can be used outside academia.
The research councils have been keen to pacify critics of the MRes and to defuse the funding issue. Opponents of the compulsory MRes were worried that its funding would have to come from PhD awards. Both the Engineering and Physical Sciences and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research councils admitted that, as there was no more money, thestudentships had to be fundedthis way.
"Obviously, with a limited pot, something has got to give," said Vincent Essex, deputy director of human resources at the BBSRC.
But NERC insisted their MRes money had come "from the internal budget, without taking any money away from PhD awards".
Ulster University has avoided entanglement in the issue. Its MRes courses are funded by the European Social Fund and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.
All the funding councils say the courses will be closely monitored.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the Association of University Teachers, the principal opponents of the MRes, have given the pilot scheme a cautious welcome.
The CVCP backs the drive to improve research training and interdisciplinary skills, within a "flexible" framework. "We support a trial scheme which allows institutions to experiment with courses tailored to the needs of different subjects, employment sectors and students."
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said: "We are keen to see the course tried out. But some students may be ready to go straight into a PhD."
He disagreed that the MRes would become essential in order to find PhD funding. "I doubt if the MRes will take over. I would be very surprised if the research councils were to put a substantial amount of money into them but we will have to see how popular they are," he said.