EPSRC clawback may fund extra PhD training centres

Research council hopes to claw back cash to fund centres that missed out during initial bidding process

December 19, 2013

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is asking universities with successful doctoral training centre bids to accept funding cuts of up to 15 per cent.

The EPSRC hopes to claw back money to fund additional centres that missed out in the bidding process.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, announced in November a list of 72 centres that would be awarded funding as part of the £350 million programme. At the time, Paul Golby, chair of the EPSRC, said that many high-quality bids remained unfunded.

The EPSRC is now hoping to streamline the announced programmes and release cash for extra centres. The measures include capping student stipends at £13,700, cutting provision for student laptops and shrinking funds for staff travel, according to a university contacted by Times Higher Education.

The research council has also approached the government to stump up more cash and universities are being asked to dig into their own pockets to cover the shortfall.

Robert Steinberger-Wilckens, chair of hydrogen and fuel cell research at the University of Birmingham, led a successful bid to establish a new doctoral training centre in fuel cell technology.

The EPSRC initially said the centre would be funded at the level of 65 per cent, he said. The proposed reduction would shrink that funding to 50 per cent, “which is not what the university underwrote”, he noted.

He said universities must decide whether to go ahead with the centres and pay the extra, or reject the cut.

Academics have other concerns about the streamlining of funding. Paul Weaver is director of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Advanced Composites for Innovation and Science at the University of Bristol, which recently secured renewal funding. His centre had previously offered stipends of £16,700, £3,000 above the EPSRC’s previous minimum. “Without that we struggle to recruit students,” he said. “It is notoriously difficult to recruit engineers for PhDs because the job market is so good.”

An EPSRC spokesman said that negotiations with centres were not complete and that it was hoping to make an announcement soon.

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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