Shake-up aims to build rapid reaction research force

ESRC intends revised training strategy to better support PhD students and to speed work on new issues. Plus the latest higher education appointments

March 5, 2015

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Helping hands: new support strategies aim to overcome ‘significant issues’

A research council has revamped its strategy for doctoral training. The Economic and Social Research Council says the changes will offer benefits to PhD students and make it more able to respond to a changing research environment.

The revised strategy, launched online on 9 February, outlines how the new system for postgraduate training will run over the next five years.

The ESRC says the changes will benefit PhD students by offering them more insight from outside academia, better peer support through larger student cohorts, and training in emerging research areas.

It decided to rethink its approach to postgraduates after an evaluation of its network of PhD training centres showed that there were still “significant issues” to overcome. The Review of the ESRC Doctoral Training Centres Network, published in late January, found that postgraduate funding has become concentrated in a small number of universities, and that centres have had waning levels of industry engagement.

The ESRC was one of the first research councils to establish a network of doctoral training centres in 2010. The centres, in which consortia of universities bring together groups of students to train them in a range of skills, marked a radical change. Previously, specific university departments had to get accredited to provide ESRC training, and funding was distributed according to quotas.

Under the new plan, the ESRC will consolidate its 21 doctoral training centres to about 15 and rename them doctoral training partnerships, to harmonise its system with those of the other research councils.

Frances Burstow, strategic lead for skills and methods at the ESRC, told Times Higher Education that this would boost the size of student cohorts at the doctoral training partnerships. She said that students benefit from being part of a larger group in terms of the “support that they get from other students” and the “range and breadth of training opportunities” that they are able to access. “We want to make those individual DTPs that bit bigger so we can really reach that critical mass of students,” she said.

About 10 per cent of the ESRC’s postgraduate training budget will be held back during the initial allocation process to allow it the flexibility to fund up to five centres for doctoral training and to increase studentships associated with its “large grants and centres” scheme as well.

Centres for doctoral training are different from doctoral training partnerships in that they deliver training based on interdisciplinary research themes and are developed in collaboration with non-academic organisations. It is hoped that the new centres will allow the ESRC to react more quickly to fresh or emerging research issues and pressing skills gaps.

The ESRC expects at least 20 per cent of CDT funding to come from outside the academy, offering students more opportunities to undertake interdisciplinary work and to get insights from non-academic partners.

The funding earmarked to boost studentships as part of the ESRC’s large grants and centres scheme will enable successful bidders in skills shortage areas to raise the number of PhDs they offer from three to 10, according to Ms Burstow.

Universities that hope to be part of the new DTPs and the first two CDTs will be able to respond to the ESRC’s call for bids, which will be released in September. The first partnerships and centres will begin operating in 2017.


Martin Orrell, formerly professor of ageing and mental health at University College London, has joined the University of Nottingham as director of the Institute of Mental Health, which is a partnership between the university and Nottinghamshire Healthcare.

Craig Spence, senior lecturer in history, archaeology and heritage studies at Bishop Grosseteste University, has been made a member of the new Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.

The University of Law has appointed David Barnes director of client law firms.

Karin Woodley and L. Alan Winters have been made council members of the Economic and Social Research Council. Ms Woodley, who has 30 years’ experience at chief executive level in public-facing charities, is chief executive of Cambridge House, which was established in South London in 1889 by the University of Cambridge to tackle poverty and social injustice. Professor Winters is professor of economics at the University of Sussex and chief executive of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.

Tara Dean has been appointed dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Portsmouth. Professor Dean took up the role in February. She was previously director of research at Portsmouth, where she holds a chair in health sciences.

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