The decision by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to slash the number of PhD students that it funds could damage the health of both disciplines and the economy, academics have warned.
The EPSRC announced in its delivery plan last December that it intended to scrap project studentships. A parliamentary question by Gareth Thomas, the shadow universities minister, has revealed that the number of PhD studentships awarded by the research council will fall by more than 1,000, to 1,900, in 2011-12.
A spokesman said the cut to project studentships would allow the EPSRC to protect the rest of its PhD funding streams, including its flagship Centres for Doctoral Training programme. Launched in 2009 in around 50 areas deemed to be strategic priorities, these centres educate students in four-year cohorts in “highly innovative, research-excellent environments where both depth and breadth are championed”.
“Students trained in this way are much sought-after by business and academia,” the spokesman added.
He said the scrapping of project studentships would also ensure that the EPSRC kept an “appropriate balance” between funding for research and training, and for researchers at every career stage.
The EPSRC’s resource budget will decrease by 3 per cent in cash terms during the current spending period.
But Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said that the demise of project studentships was top of IoP members’ list of concerns.
He said imposing such drastic cuts in PhD funding, which is not mirrored in other research councils, was “an odd thing to do when the government has stated that it sees science and engineering as the engine for the future of the economy”.
Lesley Cohen, head of solid-state physics at Imperial College London, doubted whether Centres for Doctoral Training would have been embraced as enthusiastically if researchers had been aware that they would herald the end of project studentships, whose loss would have a “very significant” negative impact on research volume.
She said the extra training made it twice as expensive to educate students in a Centre for Doctoral Training. But she said it was too early to judge whether their graduates would be better at creating wealth and solving societal problems.
She was also concerned that the EPSRC’s stipulation that nine out of 10 Centre for Doctoral Training students must be from the UK would hamper the sector’s ability to educate “the best brains in Europe”. Project studentships could be awarded to students from anywhere in the European Union.
Imperial has been awarded three Centres for Doctoral Training, but Professor Cohen said universities that had missed out would be in a poor position.
“It is yet another nail in the coffin for small universities,” she said.
Helen Atkinson, president of the Engineering Professors’ Council and head of the mechanics of materials research group at the University of Leicester, described the size of the cuts as worrying.
“Engineering PhD students are the future lifeblood of engineering as a profession, so this has much wider implications,” she said.