Hundreds of science PhDs face axe as doctoral centres shuttered

Postgraduate training likely to be concentrated in larger universities as EPSRC and Wellcome make cuts

March 15, 2023
Person chopping wood with axe

Dozens of PhD training centres and hundreds of science studentships will be axed under research council plans likely to consolidate doctoral education in larger UK universities, as a major charitable funder also withdraws dedicated support for graduate programmes.

Under a recent funding call by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the number of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) it supports will fall from 75 to “about 40”, having been cut from 115 four years ago. With the EPSRC funding 40 four-year PhDs at each CDT and requiring institutions to fund an additional 10 themselves, it will mean around 1,750 fewer studentships over the five-year period starting in 2024.

The cuts to EPSRC’s PhD funding – down from £441 million in 2018 to “up to £324 million” – come amid growing pressure on UK doctoral education which, from this year, will lose tens of millions of pounds annually after the Wellcome Trust pulled institutional PhD funding under its new research strategy focused on longer grants for early- and mid-career scientists.

In addition, UK research councils, which face real-terms cuts until at least 2025, are having to cover higher stipends this year after UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) agreed to a 10 per cent increase, worth an additional £1,600 annually.

Sarah Spurgeon, head of UCL’s department of electronic and electrical engineering, said the lower funding for PhD training raised questions about Britain’s science superpower ambitions. “In real terms, this is a huge cut,” said Professor Spurgeon, a past president of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

“Given the government’s ambitions for science, technology and innovation, there is just not enough money to do what we should be doing,” she warned, adding: “We need to support the talent pipeline at all levels, including having a strong PhD community.”

Under the EPSRC call, applicants are asked to demonstrate a “critical mass of supervisors (around 20 to 40)…with a track record of doctoral supervision”. Many midsized institutions are limited to a single CDT application, while some Russell Group universities can submit as many as 21. Collectively, these rules are likely to concentrate doctoral training in larger research universities.

With mounting funding pressures, many UK universities have begun to strike deals with foreign governments and funders to educate more international doctoral students, one vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education. “The problem with recruiting overseas PhD students is that it doesn’t solve the talent pipeline issue for the UK economy,” he said.

“Most of these doctoral students will return to their home countries or go elsewhere after their PhD, so where are the highly trained scientists, engineers and other researchers that we need going to come from?” he said.

A UKRI spokesman said a £70 million increase in training grants over the next three years would fund the stipend rise, meaning that “to date we have not had to substantially change the number of students supported with UKRI funding”.

The proposed reduction in EPSRC CDTs was “based on continuation of the current level of funding for EPSRC talent investments in future years together with allowing for an increase in costs of supporting students, their research and other centre costs compared with the last major CDT investment in 2018”.

On ending its support for university PhD programmes, Wellcome said postgraduate researchers could still register for a PhD through its Discovery Awards, Early Career Awards and PhD programmes for health professionals route.

Wellcome was “committed to supporting PhD programmes in research areas where we identify a significant lack of capacity or a market failure in a strategically important area”, it added, though its new strategy identified “major gaps in support at the stage of moving from PhD to postdoc to group leader [and] this is why we created specific early career awards”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

None of this impacts the talent pipeline issue in the UK since a PhD is not seen as an attractive option by many home students. I work in a Russell Group university and in my 30-year academic career, have only supervised a few home students in the 40 or so where I have been the first or second supervisor. An academic career is not appealing and I can see why - I am not sure whether I would be able to pursue one if I was younger. In my subject (Electronic Engineering), this is a long-standing problem only made worse by the increasing bureaucracy in universities, the real-terms decrease in pay and the less-attractive pension scheme. It would be better to have fewer students with better funding for each since at present it is hard to attract the top ones!