Nurture new talent, RAE panels say

Young academics lack the money and support to help build a career. Melanie Newman reports

January 22, 2009

A lack of funding for new research talent and universities' failure to nurture the newest academics were criticised by subject panels reviewing submissions to the 2008 research assessment exercise.

Low numbers of publicly funded studentships and the use of insecure fixed-term contracts in some subjects were concerns for the panels, whose subject reports were published this month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The panel for education noted that the average number of research students has decreased by about 7 per cent since 2001. "Of about 7,000 new students during the period, less than 4 per cent were funded by research council studentships," the panel said. "Given the significance of research council studentships for ensuring the long-term future of the discipline, the 4 per cent figure is strikingly low."

The panel for allied health studies said that although there is strong evidence of growth in the number of institutionally funded research studentships, "there did not appear to have been a concomitant growth in research council or other highly competitive studentships across these disciplines".

It also said that the number of students and research assistants associated with individual staff members "varied greatly" between submissions, with some researchers working without such support.

The sociology panel noted "considerable unevenness in the spread of postgraduates and especially of externally and centrally funded scholarships".

The anthropology reviewers said that the proportion of UK students gaining PhDs is "lower than is appropriate given the demonstrable demand for UK-trained anthropologists".

The panels also suggested that some institutions make excessive use of short-term contracts.

The anthropology panel was concerned by "a preponderance of short fixed-term contracts" offered to new academics in a few institutions.

The development studies panel said that "younger staff are often in short/fixed-term posts, which is not satisfactory for the consolidation of their doctoral research".


A number of research-intensive universities missed their targets for recruiting home and other European Union postgraduate research (PGR) students last year.

The University of Sheffield's recruitment of PGRs fell by 3 per cent in 2008, and it missed its target by 5 per cent. The University of Newcastle said that by 1 December 2008 it was 5 per cent down on the previous year's admissions. Cardiff University was down 7.5 per cent.

Although the University of Birmingham recruited 554 PGRs compared with 558 the previous year, missing its target by 4 per cent, it said it was "not concerned" because it had among the highest numbers of postgraduates in the UK.

The University of Durham recruited 379 new postgraduate research students by 1 December 2008 - 130 short of its 2008-09 target. St Andrews University missed its targets for the recruitment of home PGRs by 20 per cent. Stephen Magee, the vice-principal, said: "A major scholarship programme came to an end, so there was not so much money for postgraduate research, but that will be replaced. We also absorbed an unusually high number of taught postgraduates."

Duncan Connors, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said the economic downturn could be to blame, with self-funding students unwilling or unable to get loans and research council funding "going elsewhere".

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