Goodbye Roberts, hello Hobson as skills training cash comes to an end

Vitae conference told of hard choices ahead over postgraduate development. Hannah Fearn writes

September 16, 2010

Universities and research councils face a funding quandary over skills training for doctoral students, a conference has heard.

Roberts funding - government cash for universities to provide transferable skills and professional development to postgraduate researchers - will end next year. Few observers expect the pot of money to be replenished in the Comprehensive Spending Review next month.

Universities say they are committed to continuing to provide the support, which includes training in managing research projects and employability skills, and have promised to find the money from other sources.

But the Vitae Researcher Development Conference 2010, held in Manchester last week, heard concerns that universities may increase PhD fees to meet the shortfall.

Speaking at the event, Debbie McVitty, research and policy officer (postgraduates) at the National Union of Students, warned of the consequences of any rise in charges.

"If you can recoup (the cost) from a funder, that's one thing, but if you're recouping from a student who is already self-funding, that's a different issue," she said.

"How can you ensure that there is equality of access?"

Iain Cameron, head of research careers and diversity at Research Councils UK, said that if Roberts funding expired altogether in 2011, research councils would be left with few options.

One possibility would be to ring-fence funding for training, but it would likely be a "rather smaller sum" than universities were used to, he said.

Research councils may also be able to make funding for training a visible part of their grants.

"There is no easy answer," Dr Cameron said.

However, he promised a 2013 review of whatever measures are put in place to replace the funding stream, and an ongoing commitment to the Roberts agenda.

Meanwhile, Geriant Johnes, dean of postgraduate studies at Lancaster University, argued that the entire system of support for doctoral students should be overhauled to ensure access to all.

The current system of student support means that postgraduates receive either a full fee payment plus a generous stipend for four years, or nothing at all, he said.

"As an economist, I'm left wondering, 'What's the sense in that?'"

"There have to be people who would be willing to pay perhaps 25 per cent of the cost of their postgraduate education.

"That would free up more public funding to help more students go through and benefit from postgraduate higher education," Professor Johnes added.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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