Most postgraduate work in social sciences and economics is to be confined to about 25 university centres from 2011 despite concerns that the move will bolster the existing elite and stifle creative and collaborative work.
The radical change to the way the Economic and Social Research Council supports postgraduate research in universities was announced by the research council this week after a consultation earlier this year.
The research council will create a national network of some 25 institutional-level doctoral-training centres (DTCs) to train students across a range of disciplines. A network of smaller and more specialised doctoral-training units (DTUs) will also be created.
The new framework - which the research council says will drive up standards and be less bureaucratic - is significantly different from the current system, in which about 700 departments across 85 institutions are accredited to provide ESRC training, with the ESRC then allocating quotas.
The centres will share up to 450 studentships a year, with each centre guaranteed an allocation of between five and 40 studentships a year set for five years.
The units will compete for about 250 studentships a year under the ESRC's open competitions.
Miriam David, chair of council of the Academy of Social Sciences, which represents 35 learned societies, branded the new system a "sad moment for collaborative, challenging and creative social science research".
"The Academy of Social Sciences is extremely disappointed by the ESRC's moves to concentrate and commit precious resources in 25 doctoral-training centres for a five-year period. On previous evidence, it is likely that Russell Group universities will gain most of the DTCs rather than universities with innovative, interdisciplinary and professional or practitioner-based approaches."
John Beath, the general secretary of the Royal Economic Society, said it was clear that big universities would be advantaged. He also warned of the danger of atrophy in a system that did not allow new players in and said it was likely to lead to more rivalry within institutions as different disciplines fought for studentships within the centres.
Julie McLaren, head of postgraduate training at the ESRC, said the council had listened to researchers' concerns and had heeded complaints that pockets of excellent research in teaching-intensive universities would be disadvantaged.
She said there had been changes to the proposals following consultation. One key change is that there will be no restrictions on the number of DTUs that can be created, when a cap of 25 had initially been mooted.
Institutions will be invited to submit applications to be accredited from October. Successful applications announced in late 2010.