The Office of Science and Technology this week dropped its proposal to make a one-year masters' course the first step to postgraduate research training for most students.
The proposal was made in last year's science White Paper. But in its long-awaited final judgement on the controversial issue, the OST has opted for a more pluralist approach.
In a letter to research councils, Sir John Cadogan, director general, says that after consultation with the science community and industry, the OST has concluded that "masters degrees should not be the prerequisite for pursuing a PhD."
Research councils are however invited to launch pilot one-year masters next autumn to test their effectiveness as a direct route to employment or as preparation for PhD programmes. Some 250 people are expected to enrol.
The OST says that the consultation period confirmed that there is real interest in some academic and industrial areas in adding a self-standing one-year research masters to the range of options available to postgraduates.
Sir John says that provided research councils are satisfied with particular PhD programmes, they "will continue to be free to support students on three-year PhD courses without the requirement for a prior master's degree.
"Students who have demonstrated their suitability for research study by successful completion of a master's year will be eligible for PhD funding for a period of three years."
Sir John stresses that the Government does not expect or wish to see any increase in the average length of time taken to complete a PhD. He says that it will expect the research councils to look carefully and critically at proposals that they should fund students on four-year PhDs, and to do so only exceptionally, as has already happened with the pilot four-year engineering doctorates.