Plan to consolidate doctoral training 'ignores' RAE results

Critics say ESRC's proposal could harm 'pockets of excellence' and quality. Melanie Newman reports

January 29, 2009

Plans to concentrate funding for postgraduate research training in about 25 accredited doctoral training centres and a similar number of smaller units have been unveiled by the Economic and Social Research Council.

But some academics have expressed concern that channelling the ESRC's £45 million annual funding for training into a smaller number of institutions could leave high-quality research without adequate support.

They add that the move is at odds with last month's research assessment exercise results, which showed widely distributed "pockets of excellence" throughout the sector.

"Any concentration of studentships would ignore (the RAE) evidence and would mean that much internationally excellent research would be undermined and the overall quality of British research would decline," said John Scott, professor of sociology at the University of Plymouth.

He also warned against moving to provide support at the institutional rather than the departmental level, as this could "mean that lower- quality social science research in otherwise strong institutions is supported at the expense of higher- quality research elsewhere".

Doctoral training centres (DTCs) are defined in the ESRC's Pathways to Excellence consultation document as single institutions or multi-university partnerships with about 300 full-time postgraduate research students drawn from about ten social science disciplines, although these are not fixed minimum thresholds.

The doctoral training units (DTUs) would be located in a "strong research-intensive social science environment", with 150 full-time postgraduate research students in at least five disciplines.

Each accredited DTC would be allocated between five and 40 studentships per year for five years, with accreditation reviewed after three years. All DTUs would compete for between 250 and 300 awards a year.

Institutions would be invited to apply for recognition as DTCs and DTUs at the end of the year, with decisions made in summer 2010. Any university may be involved in more than one DTC or DTU.

Institutional-level recognition would promote more coherent, university-wide training programmes and reduce red tape, the ESRC said.

But a draft report from a recent meeting of the Heads and Professors of Sociology group by its chairman, John Holmwood, noted that "the argument for concentration had been undermined" by the RAE results.

"There was a concern that institutional recognition and concentrated allocation of awards would reduce the incentive for those outside the recognised group to offer the same level of research methods training," the report says.

"At the same time the RAE result indicated there would be significant research excellence outside that core."

Steve Trevillion, dean of the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London, added: "There is scope in the proposals for the development of partnership-based DTCs involving two or more universities, and this may be the way forward, but the sector needs to see evidence that the ESRC is fully behind the development of partnership models (first)."

The proposals will be put to the ESRC board for approval in April.

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