UK academics have called for an urgent review of the running and funding of doctoral training centres for postgraduate students, amid claims that the schemes are ineffective and unsustainable.
Publishing a report on the impact of the Economic and Social Research Council’s doctoral training policy – which requires universities to bid for funding to establish new training centres – researchers from Liverpool Hope and Bath Spa universities warned that bureaucracy and lack of funding were preventing universities from achieving positive results.
It follows accusations that the doctoral training centres funded by a second council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, were not performing as well as billed.
Drawing on interviews with staff and students alongside doctoral completion rate figures, the report on the ESRC reiterates concerns over the “selective nature” of the centres. Post-92 universities were found to be “far more likely” to be excluded from ESRC doctoral funding than pre-92 institutions, which researchers said raises questions about whether access to doctorates is socially inegalitarian.
Not only did the findings show no evidence that students in a DTC had a better training experience, but researchers argued that “we are by and large in the dark as to how they work, and whether they work”.
Reflecting on the report’s findings, Rosemary Deem, vice-principal (education) and dean of the doctoral school at Royal Holloway, University of London, labelled the scheme a “politically awkward”, expensive administrative burden on institutions.
“Pre-existing cultural and competitive divisions between disciplines and universities over what was perceived to be a limited, precious resource – doctoral scholarships – could not be overcome solely through the creation of what was largely an administrative structure,” she concluded.
Cuts to ESRC funding amid increased pressure for universities to seek external sources of income for the programmes “may lead in time to an ESRC kitemark alongside a good deal of bureaucracy but no money”, Professor Deem warned, “which in a post-Brexit Britain cut off from all European Union research funding may make the UK look like the poor relation of its European cousins”.
Upon the introduction of DTCs in 2010, 83 universities had access to ESRC doctoral funding. A UK spending review that same year led to budget cuts, however, and by 2011 this number had dropped by almost half – disproportionately affecting post-92 institutions.
Richard Budd, senior lecturer in education studies at Liverpool Hope and co-author of the report, called for a major review of the centres policy to establish the best way forward.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Budd said that the concept of doctoral training centres was a “good idea” in principle that “doesn’t seem to be working”.
“Very experienced academics feel that it is the right approach, but it is also clear that there are significant problems in its implementation,” he said. “The fact that there are about 230 training centres and no real evidence that this is the best approach…is certainly a concern.”
Frances Burstow, deputy director for skills and methods at ESRC, said that the funding council “remains committed to working with institutions to continue to develop and raise standards of postgraduate training across the social sciences”.
“We understand that concerns were raised in this report about the level of concentration within the DTC network and the potential impacts on widening participation,” she said, adding that bids to the 2016 doctoral training partnerships scheme “were encouraged to be inclusive of pockets of excellence wherever they occurred and they had to explicitly set out their approach to widening participation”.