Representatives from 15 subject associations are to meet the head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council over claims that it has backtracked over a pledge to preserve funding levels for postgraduates.
The AHRC's delivery plan, published at the end of 2010, indicated that postgraduate studentships would continue to account for 43 per cent of the council's budget until the end of the government's Spending Review period in 2014-15.
But documents presented to academics last autumn ahead of applications for the second phase of the AHRC's block grant partnerships - via which postgraduate studentships are allocated to universities - indicated that such support would account for only 37 per cent of the council's budget in 2014-15.
Indicative figures suggested that this would drop to just 35 per cent by 2018-19. This would mean a fall in funding for block grant partnerships from £41.5 million in 2011-12 to £30.5 million in 2018-19 - a per cent decrease.
The number of postgraduates supported by the partnerships each year would fall from 620 to 450. The number of collaborative doctoral awards, for PhDs in collaboration with business, will hold steady at 80.
Robin Osborne, professor of ancient history at the University of Cambridge, said the AHRC had neither highlighted nor explained its apparent change of heart.
Learned societies were concerned that cutting postgraduate support at a time of spiralling undergraduate debt would dissuade many students, particularly from lower socio-economic groups, from continuing their studies. This would lead to "much greater social selection to the academic profession", he added.
Master's mistake makes it worse
Professor Osborne, who is coordinating the societies' response via their loose federation, the Arts and Humanities User Group, said the situation had been exacerbated by the AHRC's decision to end funding for stand-alone master's degrees.
He explained that a master's was a prerequisite for PhD study and could not be obtained at undergraduate level in the humanities, as was possible in some science subjects.
Professor Osborne argued that the only rationale the AHRC had given for the figures was that the proportion of its expenditure accounted for by postgraduate support needed to be brought into line with the other research councils. "But science research councils have to fund a good deal of expensive plant, which is...irrelevant on the arts side. So the comparison of proportions is just specious," he said.
A spokesman for the AHRC declined to comment on the meeting planned for 23 March between representatives of the societies and Rick Rylance, chief executive of the research council. But he pointed out that the AHRC funded less than 10 per cent of PhD students in the arts and humanities.
Professor Osborne said the sector feared the AHRC wanted to redirect funding from areas that universities effectively controlled into its own strategic initiatives, "about which the sector is much more dubious".
He said he expected Professor Rylance to "be very nice but to ignore us". But he hoped the pressure would be sustained by a series of planned initiatives on postgraduate funding, including a report by the British Academy due to be published early next month.