Anger grows as 1,000 engineering and physical sciences PhDs slashed

Academics warn of threat to economy as extent of EPSRC cuts is revealed

August 4, 2011

Source: Getty

Swap shop: dismay at shift from project studentships to doctoral training centres

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.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

http://tinyurl.com/3udswn4

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

User Acceptance Testing Technician CAMBRIDGE ASSESSMENT
Director of Teaching and Learning UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST OF ENGLAND
Director of Learning and Teaching UNIVERSITY OF GREENWICH (MAIN ADDRESS)

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

Globalisation

Times Higher Education World University Rankings data reveal the top 200 most outward-looking institutions

Common cactus finch (Geospiza scandens)

Tiffany Taylor on a thought-provoking view of the forces acting to ensure survival

Stressed businessman answering four telephones

Some surveys show faculty putting in at least 60 hours a week, but research casts doubt on whether this is a productive routine

Student asking question during class

University of Reading research finds link between undergraduate satisfaction and ethnicity of lecturers

Level of quality compass

Authors argue this means universities should spend less on senior academics and give promising younger scholars more of a chance