Lack of funding for master’s creates PhD paradox

Research councils may have to ‘rethink’ requirements because of cuts to lower-level courses

January 30, 2014

Research councils may eventually have to “rethink” the requirement for PhD candidates to have a master’s degree if the number of studentships available for such lower-level courses continues to be cut.

That is the view of the director of one of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s new doctoral training partnerships (DTPs), who told a conference that new funding arrangements have created a “strange paradox” where PhD candidates need a master’s but will struggle to afford one.

Under the AHRC’s new programme for PhD training, 11 consortia of universities and other organisations will run DTPs, with the first awards made in the 2014-15 academic year.

The partnerships will be rolled out alongside seven centres for doctoral training (CDTs), which will specialise in the research council’s priority areas – design, modern languages and heritage. The £164 million programme replaces the existing block grant partnership scheme.

Katie Normington, dean of arts and social sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, is director of the London and South-East Doctoral Research Consortium (TECHNE), which brings together seven universities.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, after first raising the issue at a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on 23 January, Professor Normington said the new scheme would see TECHNE award half as many studentships for research master’s degrees as the member institutions did under the existing block grants programme. Collectively the universities in the partnership allocated the equivalent of more than 50 professional preparation master’s awards and close to 30 research preparation master’s awards over the period of the block grants, which were mostly five years.

Under the DTP, the seven institutions will be able to award a maximum of 15 research preparation master’s degrees between them over five years.

“In order to register for a PhD, the AHRC currently insists on the candidate having a master’s degree and yet there is next to no funding for someone to obtain this,” Professor Normington said. She said that she could see the argument why the research councils should not be supporting vocational training, but the new system creates a “catch-22 situation”.

“We need a debate in the academy about how to address this,” she said. It should examine funding, but also think “pedagogically” about the borders between research master’s and PhDs and “possibilities that could open up going forward”.

It could be that research master’s and PhD degrees are merged, creating courses that last up to four years, she suggested at the conference.

Mark Llewellyn, AHRC director of research, said that since 2010 the council had said that any new postgraduate funding scheme would not fund stand-alone master’s studentships. Historically the AHRC has supported only “around 5 per cent of the total arts and humanities MA cohort”, he added.

But Professor Llewellyn said the “flexibility” in the DTPs and CDTs scheme meant awards could “support master’s work where specialist training need is required”.

“Part of what these block awards will facilitate is new and innovative approaches to training, which is so key to the future of the doctorate,” he said.

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