Research intelligence - The cost of concentration

The ESRC's decision to limit PhD funding to 45 pre-92 universities has triggered outrage. Paul Jump reports

March 10, 2011

When the Economic and Social Research Council announced in January that it would restrict doctoral studentships to 21 consortia of just 45 pre-1992 universities, it provoked the kind of outrage that many expect to be voiced regularly as the government's research-concentration agenda is implemented.

The ESRC is not the first research council to set up a network of doctoral training centres, each with a fixed number of studentships. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council did so in 2009, and recently announced that all of its future studentships would be confined to the network. Of the 24 institutions involved, only one, Cranfield University, is a post-92.

But the ESRC is in particularly invidious territory because it has disregarded recommendations made by its own peer-review panels.

Times Higher Education understands that the panels recommended that it fund around 25 training centres and 19 smaller doctoral training units. The units would not have received guaranteed studentships, but their students would have been able to apply for PhD funding in open competition. More than half of the units would have been based in post-92s.

An announcement on the issue was due last summer, but Paul Boyle, the ESRC's chief executive, decided to postpone it until after October's Comprehensive Spending Review to make sure that the council could afford to fund a "decent number" of studentships in each institution.

When it learned it would be subject to a 12 per cent real-terms budget cut, the ESRC decided to reduce the number of studentships it offers to 600 from a "historical high" of 750, and axe all of the training units as well as a number of training centres.

Professor Boyle admitted that the "changed policy environment" brought about by the coalition's enthusiasm for research concentration had informed the move. But he denied there had been a specific decision not to fund the units; they had lost out because of the "considerably higher" quality of the training centres' bids, he said.

Excellence is all around

Many critics say concentrating funding in the social sciences is misguided because excellence is widespread, with particularly strong performances in the final research assessment exercise by three post-92 institutions: University of the West of England, the University of Plymouth and Oxford Brookes University.

Libby Aston, director of the University Alliance, of which all three are members, predicted that the loss of the units would "seriously affect" UK research's long-term health.

"It cannot be right that there are nearly 100 ESRC active grants in Alliance universities and yet none of these research units are receiving funding for PhD students," she said.

But Professor Boyle said that funding significant cohorts of students would promote mutual learning and interdisciplinarity. He said the training centre structure would also boost collaboration between the consortia and organisations outside the sector, with which the centres are expected to deliver 20 per cent of their provision.

Training centres' studentship allocations are based largely on an algorithm incorporating RAE scores, staff and student numbers and the quality of applications. But they are also informed by the council's desire to prioritise research areas such as quantitative methods and economics.

He said the centres' need for stability meant they would not have to reapply for accreditation until 2015. He stressed that other consortia would be free to apply at that point, although critics have argued that they will be in a poor position to bid against existing centres, whose training capacity will have been fattened by five years of ESRC funding.

In the meantime, Professor Boyle said the council was "happy to consider" hub-and-spoke arrangements between centres and "pockets of excellence" elsewhere.

But Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University, said the centres would have little incentive to establish such partnerships, which would see them "exporting cash".

Professor Boyle said that most ESRC studentships already went to institutions participating in the training centres, so would-be training units would be no worse off as a result of the decision not to fund them.

But critics have pointed out that many institutions use their ESRC accreditation when recruiting students, and a number have written to Professor Boyle urging him to continue accrediting them even in the absence of available studentships. But Professor Boyle said no other research council accredited institutions, and to do so incurred "significant costs".

"Our previous accreditation system proved valuable in raising national standards, but we now expect our doctoral training centre network to play that leadership role," he said.

Professor Dingwall countered that the ESRC could even consider charging universities for the service.

But some institutions are still hoping to force the ESRC to return to Plan A. One training unit consortium has launched a formal appeal and others are expected to follow. If research concentration comes to the social sciences, it appears that it will not be delivered without a fight.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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