There are still “significant issues” with the network of doctoral training centres set up by one research council, according to a report.
A review of the centres established by the Economic and Social Research Council expresses concerns about the concentration of resources, access to PhD study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and waning levels of industry engagement.
Although it says it is too early to draw “very robust conclusions”, the report recommends that a series of metrics be put in place to measure the success of the centres ahead of the next commissioning round.
In 2011-12, the ESRC became the second research council to launch a network of PhD training centres. The move concentrated postgraduate funding at a small group of universities. The centres are providing social science postgraduates with “excellent research and other key skills”, finds the Review of the ESRC Doctoral Training Centres Network, but “there remain significant issues still to address”.
The number of studentships in the social sciences has increased by almost 20 per cent since the advent of the centres. This is thanks in part to institutions using ESRC funding to leverage additional finance from inside and outside academia, says the report, authored by a committee led by Richard Bartholomew, an independent research consultant.
But the increase in places is not spread evenly across the network and the majority of additional funding has come from “a reallocation of funds” within universities rather than from external bodies, it adds.
The report says that the use of universities’ quality-related research income or other “in-house” sources “to provide more co-funding for ESRC studentships has the significant drawback of reducing the funding available for other activities, including other research or training”.
It adds that since 2011-12, the number and proportion of collaborations between doctoral training centres and the private sector has declined. For the 2013-14 cohort of studentships, just 14 per cent of collaborations involved the private sector. This is down from 32 per cent in 2011-12, according to the report, which draws on evidence from universities – both those with and without doctoral training centres – learned societies, students, ESRC officials and non-academic collaborators.
“More needs to be done to foster collaborations with non-academic partners and especially the private sector,” it says.
The number of postgraduates working in education, social anthropology and social work is “failing to reach the target level” because “these disciplines do not attract enough applicants of sufficient quality, or are losing out in the processes of studentship allocations”, the report adds.
There has also been a decline in the proportion of “1+3 awards”, which broadly combine master’s level training with a PhD and take four years, while numbers on traditional three-year PhDs have risen. The ESRC Training and Skills Committee and the British Sociological Association have raised concerns that this trend might restrict PhD study to only those who can afford to self-fund a one-year master’s degree.
The report further finds that the concentration of doctoral funding at just 21 centres has resulted in a “two-tier” system for PhDs, with the “more or less complete exclusion of post-1992 universities from the DTC network”.