PhD quotas may not improve research quality

January 4, 2008

Concentrating political science studentships in a few institutions could be counterproductive, argues Andrew Dobson.

In the Economic and Social Research Council's recent assessment of UK politics and international studies research, the panel's chairman, Bob Goodin of the Australian National University, describes the situation as broadly good. "Benchmarking to the best worldwide," he says, "we found the discipline in the UK to be very strong indeed."

Ian Diamond, chief executive of the ESRC, was equally pleased: "I am delighted with the outcome of this review, highlighting as it does the excellence of the research taking place within these disciplines in the UK."

As a member of the UK politics and international studies community, I also welcome this stamp of approval, and I look forward to the profession moving onwards and upwards. Which is why I worry about one of the assessment's recommendations, because it may undo some of the good work being done in departments around the country.

At three points in the report, the panel says it "endorses quotas in the allocation of ESRC studentships". This is a comment on the process by which, since 2004, the ESRC has been increasing the number of postgraduate research awards allocated by departments rather than by the council. This has been done by focusing awards on a relatively small number of "outlets" where what is regarded as the best research is being carried out.

The advantage of a quota system is that it puts decision-making where it should be: in the hands of those closest to the relevant knowledge. This may have reduced one type of arbitrariness in studentship allocation that the previous open system sometimes involved. But is the new quota system any better overall?

Diamond's assertion in March 2004 (in the Political Studies Association newsletter) that the move to quotas for ESRC studentship awards "support(s) the best social scientists in the UK" is open to question.

First, it is unlikely that the UK's best political scientists are uniquely located in the 17 outlets that have been allocated quota awards. So the quota system effectively denies PhD students the opportunity to work with the large number of excellent academics who are not in quota outlets. The number of 1+3 awards (one-year research training masters, plus three-year PhD) available in open competition (a little more than 10 per cent of the total) goes some way towards remedying the situation, and it is good to see some openness being preserved - thus far at least.

Second, Diamond's claim that there was a "clear consensus" that the ESRC should move to 1+3 quotas is not supported by the data. Of 64 replies, 39 were in favour. Does this really amount to a "clear consensus"?

Third, the move to quotas has caused resentment among outlets that have striven to gain 1+3 recognition in research recognition exercises, on the assumption that if they got recognition they could apply for the full range of studentships. Pulling up the ladder, in the way the ESRC did, was demoralising.

It has not yet been explained how the concentration of ESRC studentships in a small number of universities squares with the council's mission to "enhance the capacity for the highest quality in social science research". The assessment report's authors endorse the quota system - and say "it is good to concentrate research training in the biggest departments (because they) tend to be best in research quality". At one time there may indeed have been an intellectually unhealthy stress on the supervisor-student relationship, but now the pendulum has swung too far in the "research culture" direction. There is no doubt that a strong research culture is important for research students, and such a culture is more likely to be present where there is "critical mass". But the quality of supervisors is also a vital element in successful PhD completion. The quota system increases the possibility that high-quality supervision around the country will be underutilised.

I was a member of the Research Recognition Panel in 2001, and I chaired it in 2003. I have seen the way in which the carrot of studentships has encouraged institutions to put on research training programmes when they otherwise might not have done so. They are now less likely to do so. In recruiting students to outlets that have to give their quotas to somebody, and in making it harder for other students to have the opportunity to work with some of the best political scientists because they don't work in quota outlets, there is a danger that the ESRC might achieve the opposite of what it set out to do.

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University.

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