Postgraduate funding could be concentrated more heavily on the research elite following a review of postgraduate provision in the UK.
A report, One Step Beyond: Making the Most of Postgraduate Education, was published last week by the review panel led by Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
A key recommendation is that the Higher Education Funding Council for England should "consider how to link future allocations of (the research degree supervision grant) more explicitly to research quality".
The funding is distributed as part of the block grant for research, and was spread more thinly across the sector after the 2008 research assessment exercise.
Hefce had previously said that it would look to reconcentrate the funding if the Smith review recommended it.
Les Ebdon, chair of Million+, which represents newer universities, said the recommendation was not based on evidence and would hit poor students hardest.
"There is clear evidence that further concentration will be damaging because it will reduce opportunity for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minorities, who are largely concentrated in post-1992 universities," he said.
Professor Ebdon also suggested that the review team appeared to have been "very heavily lobbied" by those in favour of greater concentration. He predicted that the next battle between the research elite and the post-92 sector would come over the £2.5 million pot for Newton Scholarships, a new funding source for postgraduates.
The Smith review also suggests that there is a case to be made to the review of fees and funding led by Lord Browne of Madingley that access to postgraduate education is being inhibited by cost and finance.
Professor Ebdon said that the implication was that money currently used to subsidise undergraduates could be shifted to postgraduates, but warned that "all the evidence" was against it.
The review, commissioned by Lord Mandelson, makes 24 recommendations to enhance and strengthen postgraduate education in the UK. Particular emphasis is placed on the need to tailor provision to deliver skills to business, with funding explicitly linked to achieving this goal.
It says universities should ensure that "transferable skills training" is embedded in all postgraduate research programmes.
The review's direction in favour of concentration was welcomed by both the Russell Group and the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities.
TIME CALLED ON ROBERTS FUNDING
The annual £20 million pot aimed at encouraging the "transferable skills" called for by the Smith review of postgraduate education is to be discontinued.
The research councils said last week that there would be no more "Roberts funding" available to develop researchers' careers when the current pot runs out at the end of 2011.
"Ring-fenced funding is intended to raise the profile of an agenda and provide momentum, but is not a long-term solution," Research Councils UK said.
Now that the Roberts funding is coming to an end, career development must be "embedded in normal practices", RCUK added.