Don't tarnish gold standard

April 8, 2005

Erratic postgrad funding is weakening our research base, say Howard Green and Stuart Powell.

Doctoral students in the UK can be increasingly divided into two groups: those with well-funded supervision and training and those without.

While there has been national debate over fears of a two-tier system of higher education for undergraduates, the ongoing shift towards such a split for doctoral students has raised barely a whimper. For the first time this split seems to be fostered by explicit policy initiatives.

Unless it is addressed, the UK's ability to deliver its highest level of academic award effectively will be diminished. Higher education will face a progressive reduction in the number of postgraduate research students, which is already showing signs of decline; the loss of any provision in some parts of the country and in some disciplines; and ultimately and fundamentally an undermining of the research base - already struggling in some areas and dominated by overseas research students.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England needs to address these issues. If it fails to do so, it will in our view be abrogating its basic responsibilities.

The Roberts review began the trend. It announced that skills training was a vital element of a research degree programme. Currently, Hefce allocates about £800 a year to institutions per research council student for research training. A similar scheme, funded to a lower level, is offered by the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

But why is the money for research council students only? Hefce's remit is not, after all, restricted to research council students, who form a minority of research degree students.

The recent Hefce funding model for postgraduate research training builds in more inconsistencies. The council announced at the end of December that it would no longer fund research students in departments rated below 4 in the research assessment exercise.

But the RAE measured overall performance, not the ability to train and educate research students. It is a decision that sits uneasily alongside Hefce's endorsement of the Quality Assurance Agency's code of practice for research students, published last term. The code does not employ RAE grades as markers of likely performance.

So departments might meet all aspects of the QAA code and be performing with excellence in terms of completion rates and all other indicators of research degree performance but be undermined by a funding methodology based on a - now historical - assessment outcome that did not relate to that performance.

To make matters worse, a JM Consulting report commissioned by Hefce into the costs of training research students and subsequent analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that the cost of provision, and the gap between income and expenditure, is much higher than many had thought possible. Who will make up this gap?

It is time for some hard decisions: should the funding councils bite the bullet and address the issue of the two-tier system and ensure that all research students are appropriately funded in the same way they do for undergraduates, or should institutions that receive neither research council studentships nor Hefce research student funding be prevented from recruiting students at all?

Is that what we want?

Howard Green is senior adviser to the vice-chancellor, Staffordshire University, and Stuart Powell is director of research degrees, Hertfordshire University.

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