The Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council have denied that their decision to end project studentships linked to open-call grants is a result of pressure to fall into line with the sciences.
The AHRC and the ESRC issued similar statements at the end of last month announcing that, from 1 November, they will fund project studentships – which fund PhD students on specific projects – only if they are linked to grants in their areas of strategic priority.
The statement says that both bodies have “agreed to adopt the same approach as the other research councils” in light of efforts to “harmonise aspects of their doctoral training support”.
Robert Dingwall, an independent researcher affiliated with Nottingham Trent University, said the statement was further evidence that the “big pressure for harmonisation” between the research councils, which was “justified” in some administrative areas, had now extended “into things where diversity has a real justification in the different circumstances of the different research communities”.
Meera Sabaratnam, lecturer in international studies at the University of Cambridge, said that although relatively few project studentships were given out, their restriction to strategic priorities – and in the ESRC’s case to doctoral training centres – was part of a continuing publicly unarticulated push by the government to confine research to certain institutions.
She said the move was likely to “reduce intellectual pluralism, diversity and innovation in postgraduate research, which will doubtless have a knock-on effect on the future research agenda”.
James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, said the withdrawal of project studentships had been “much lamented” in the sciences.
“How will people acquire the skills and knowledge to develop as researchers in the strategic priorities of the future if project studentships are confined to areas that the research councils now think are important?” he asked.
There was “no evidence that high-quality training and facilities cannot be provided outside large groups”, he added.
But Professor Dingwall said that a UK PhD was now less about producing “a significant work of original scholarship” and more about demonstrating “evidence of basic professional competence”.
“If you see it in those terms, larger training centres make sense because they can deliver economies of scale and diversity of learning opportunities in a way smaller research institutions struggle with,” he said. For this reason, he would “not shed too many tears” for the loss of project studentships.
A member of the AHRC peer-review college, who asked not to be named, also questioned the value of project studentships because, in his view, a humanities PhD should be more about “following your own nose” than helping a principal investigator conduct a large project such as editing an author’s complete works.
Responding on behalf of both the AHRC and the ESRC, Ian Lyne, associate director of programmes at the former, insisted that neither research council had “fallen into line for the sake of it”.
He said the AHRC had first flagged the withdrawal of project studentships from open-call grants in 2010, motivated by a desire to “deploy our funding in the most effective and strategic way”. He encouraged humanities academics needing help on non-strategic projects to apply instead for postdoctoral fellowships. This would help to address the current dearth of post-PhD career opportunities.
Academics at institutions that were awarded PhD funding via the AHRC’s block grant partnerships could also encourage potential doctoral students to apply for institutional funding to work with them.
Dr Lyne said that 72 per cent of the AHRC’s funding was still distributed via responsive mode calls.