Oxford and Cambridge universities appear to be totally uninterested in joint projects with industry to support PhD students, it was claimed this week.
The comments came as research revealed that the Oxbridge colleges are eclipsed by their northern rivals when it comes to attracting student training grants from business.
The research shows that the allocation of Co-operative Awards in Science and Engineering (Case) PhD studentships varied widely by geographical location and by subject. But northern and new universities have attracted the lion's share of funds.
The success rate for applications for Case funding stands at 50 per cent - twice that for other PhD schemes supported by the research councils.
Study co-author David Demeritt, a lecturer at King's College London's department of geography, said: "Oxbridge appears to be totally uninterested. The Russell Group universities hoover up a lot of the awards and old polytechnics get a higher percentage of Case awards, reinforcing the truism of them being more engaged with the community."
Dr Demeritt and Loretta Lees, also from King's department of geography, investigated the distribution of Case awards allocated by the Economic and Social Research Council, The Natural Environment Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council in recent years.
The Case programmes were developed to encourage collaborative research between universities and either commercial partners or the public and voluntary sectors, who contribute a minimum £2,000 a year to the student stipends. The stipends tend to be higher than the research councils' standard Pounds 12,000 grants.
Unlike other PhD funding, Case awards are allocated by a national competition rather than being directly linked to a department's success rate in research grant applications. For example, last year, Oxford and Cambridge together scooped almost a quarter of the 1,500 main PhD funding awards from the AHRC. But they did not take any of the council's 25 Collaborative Doctoral Awards.
Between 2000 and 2004, of the 335 ESRC Case awards, Sheffield University secured the most, with 28. Manchester University and the former University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology won 26, and Newcastle University won 25.
Jeremy Neathey, head of postgraduate training at the ESRC said the distribution did not reflect the quality of applications from Oxbridge but the quantity. He said: "There is no quota of Case awards across any disciplines, nor pre-determined distribution by institution. The ESRC sees a larger number of Case applications from northern universities."
Simon Beecroft, of the graduate research office at Sheffield, said research supervisors sought collaborative support when they could. "It provides a link between the university and the local community and industry, something we are keen to foster."
A spokeswoman for Oxford said the university was unsure why it had so few Case students, but suggested that it had so many traditionally funded students that many supervisors did not need them.
* Universities should enter only truly innovative and collaborative bids in a forthcoming competition for grants that enable links with industry and the wider community, funding chiefs have warned.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England unveiled a consultation on the third round of the Higher Education Innovation Fund last week. It proposes allocating 75 per cent of the £218 million fund by formula - based on figures supplied by institutions on staffing numbers, external income and entrepreneurial activity. The remaining 25 per cent will be allocated to about 20 large projects after a bidding competition.
Adrian Hill, head of Hefce's business and community team, said: "We are keen to make sure competitive bids are extremely innovative and creative.
There's no point in institutions thinking we might as well just do a competitive bid as well. That will be a waste of a lot of people's time."