Formal review to consider four key areas of postgraduate study

Vitae conference also told about the possibility of Roberts funding winding up. Zoë Corbyn reports

September 17, 2009

The controversial issue of whether postgraduate courses need to be better aligned with the UK's economic strengths is to be considered as part of a formal review.

Firm details of the review, which was announced by Lord Mandelson in July, emerged at last week's Vitae Researcher Development Conference at the University of Warwick.

Stephen Axford, head of science and society at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, set out four key themes that the review will cover.

It will consider the attractiveness of postgraduate study in the UK compared with other countries, and whether the societal mix of PhD and masters students needs to be widened.

It will also look at the benefits of postgraduates to the economy and society, and whether the needs of business and the academy are being met by the disciplinary mix.

Dr Axford said that whatever the outcome of the next general election, the Government "will have to think quite hard about whether the longer-term strategic direction of postgraduate provision is roughly aligned with the needs of the economy coming out of recession".

He also confirmed that the review would look at the sticky issue of whether it is in the UK's interests for postgraduate education to become more concentrated in research-intensive universities - something that was recommended in a report to the Government last year by Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University and now chair of the 1994 Group.

Dr Axford told Times Higher Education that the review, which is to be led by Adrian Smith, director-general of science and research at BIS, will look at the "strengths and potential weaknesses of a system where postgraduate study is done to differing extents and, I think we have to admit, to differing quality in different institutions".

He said the review would also consider whether the Government should develop a postgraduate strategy.

Professor Smith is set to begin gathering evidence over the next few months, with a report due to be presented to ministers in early 2010.

The conference, held by Vitae - the national organisation for the development of doctoral researchers and research staff in universities - and supported by Times Higher Education, also heard that the £20 million pot of Roberts funding provided annually to universities for doctoral training may be wound up.

Iain Cameron, head of research careers and diversity at Research Councils UK, said: "You can't earmark money for ever ... The agenda has to move forward."

He said that the "logical" next step was for universities to fund such programmes out of the general block grants for doctoral training provided by the councils.

RCUK is expected to set up an independent panel this autumn to review the funding.

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