New ways to fund postgraduate studentships are being considered in an attempt to win more money for science in the next spending review.
At present, the number of postgraduate places and the stipends students receive are set centrally. This responsibility could be devolved to university departments under one of the more radical plans being discussed.
The heads of the research councils met this week to examine a new funding strategy proposed by the Office of Science and Technology. It is believed to be a more conservative version of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's plan to change funding arrangements.
The EPSRC proposals would allow departments to pay students more in some subject areas and to pay them for more than three years. Already the Medical Research Council pays higher stipends than the other research councils in an attempt to keep pace with pay rates offered by the medical research charities.
Richard Brook, chief executive of the EPSRC, said: "We try to make decisions centrally. My suspicion is that it would be better to do it locally. It would be a revolutionary change.
"So far, universities have been protected from having to make difficult decisions. The EPSRC wants to say: 'You know the subject, you know the student demand, so it is up to you to decide how much you pay them and for how long they work.'"
The EPSRC funds the vast majority of government-funded studentships. It developed the proposed funding strategy to address a shortfall in the take-up of its studentships, of which only 85 per cent were taken up in 1998-99. Since then, numbers have recovered, Professor Brook said. The EPSRC will issue a consultation document later this month.
Other research councils are less keen on the scheme. Ian Halliday, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said:
"Pushing decision-making to a university department level is possibly not a recipe for minimising paperwork, and it is not entirely clear that it is a recipe for increasing student stipends."