Don’t expect Roberts cash to last, warns RCUK

Universities told they may have to fund doctoral training themselves. Zoë Corbyn reports

September 9, 2009

Research councils are unlikely to continue providing a pot of funding dedicated to developing researchers’ skills, Times Higher Education has learnt.

Speaking during a Vitae Researcher Development Conference at the University of Warwick on 8 and 9 September, Iain Cameron, head of research careers and diversity at Research Councils UK, warned universities not to expect specific funding earmarked for the so-called Roberts agenda after the next comprehensive spending review.

He said it was more likely that universities would be expected to fund such programmes out of the general block grants for doctoral training provided by the councils.

He also declined to guarantee that block grants would be increased to take account of this extra burden.

“You can’t earmark money for ever,” Dr Cameron told Times Higher Education. “The agenda has to move forward. We have earmarked money for seven years nearly... The [Roberts] agenda for PhD students is beginning to get quite well embedded in universities. It would be very logical then for the money to be associated with the normal flow of funds to support doctoral training.”

The move would place the future of Roberts training squarely in the hands of universities.

Dr Cameron said the development was “not about taking something away but about trying to encourage the agenda to move forward”.

He said that earmarking the cash had ensured that doctoral training had became well established, but warned: “If you keep earmarking it, you could – if you are not careful – end up protecting the money rather than keeping it going because it has value.”

The future of the Roberts funding has been the talk of the conference. Provided since 2004-05 after a recommendation in a 2002 report from Sir Gareth Roberts, it has enabled institutions to develop a wide range of projects and schemes to aid researchers’ professional and personal development.

The ring-fenced cash totals about £20 million a year and is allocated to universities through the research councils according to their numbers of research council-funded students.

But the money is guaranteed only until 2010-2011.

RCUK is expected to set up an independent panel this autumn to review the funding, with the results deciding what form any future research council funding will take.

Dr Cameron’s comments chimed with those of Ian Diamond, chair of RCUK, who told delegates that universities had to ask themselves whether they would be prepared to run Roberts programmes if no dedicated funds were available.

“[We need to have] a conversation about the evolution of the Roberts money into the next generation and the hard question is ‘would you do this if there was not free money coming to do it?’” he said. “We have to understand the extent to which this is something that we fundamentally believe has changed culture and is changing the landscape.”

Janet Metcalfe, chair of Vitae, the national organisation for the development of doctoral researchers and research staff in universities, said this was a “Hobson’s choice”.

“If you answer no, then [research councils] probably wouldn’t continue the money. If you answer yes, it is ‘oh well, just do it without [dedicated Roberts funding]’," she said.

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