Spurned universities may appeal as ESRC concentrates doctoral cash

February 3, 2011

A research council's decision to restrict doctoral funding and accreditation to just 21 university consortia has been criticised, with rumours of possible legal action.

The discontent may be a sign of things to come as the concentration of research funding continues. Under plans by the Economic and Social Research Council, doctoral studentships will be allocated exclusively to a network of "doctoral training centres", the identities of which were unveiled last month.

But the council will fund fewer centres than were recommended by its peer-review panels and has decided not to fund any doctoral training units - narrower programmes that would not have received studentships automatically, but whose students would have been able to bid for them.

The ESRC is the second council to introduce specific doctoral training centres, following the example of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

All the UK's research councils plan to concentrate more doctoral funding on centres of excellence with critical mass.

Paul Boyle, chief executive of the ESRC, said the assessment panels had made their original recommendations last summer.

However, the council had delayed making firm decisions until its budget allocation for the next spending period had been announced to ensure that it could allocate each centre a "decent number" of studentships.

Real-terms cuts in the ESRC's budget will see the number of studentships it awards annually fall from 750 to 600, and the council responded by imposing a higher quality threshold on the 29 applications it received for training centres and 28 for training units.

It is understood that the unsuccessful bidders include Cranfield University, plus joint bids by The Open University and the University of East Anglia and the universities of Leicester and Loughborough.

The 45 members of the 21 successful training centre consortia are almost all members of the Russell and 1994 groups.

A doctoral training unit bid by a consortium comprising the universities of East London and Greenwich, and Middlesex, London Metropolitan and London South Bank universities was originally recommended for accreditation in some areas but failed to gain the council's support.

Waqar Ahmad, deputy vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at Middlesex University, described the ESRC's decision to disregard its panels' recommendations as "high-handed" and "bizarre", and said it came after governmental pressure for greater research concentration.

An ESRC document explaining the decision notes that besides its priority to ensure financial sustainability, it had been informed by the recent review of postgraduate education led by Sir Adrian Smith, director general for knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It recommended the greater targeting of training in centres of excellence.

The document adds that universities can appeal "if it is argued that the judgement is perverse or that due procedure has not been followed".

UEA and The Open University confirmed that they were considering an appeal, and Professor Ahmad said a "large number" of institutions were doing so. Times Higher Education understands that some may even seek a judicial review.

Professor Ahmad said that even if the council could no longer afford to fund training units, it should continue to accredit them, preserving a "kitemark" that helped to attract students.

"The message (the removal of accreditation) sends out...is that 70 per cent of UK institutions are not fit for recognition," he said. "To say places such as Leicester, UEA and The Open University have no contribution to make is stupid."

Professor Boyle said the next round of bids would not come for five years in order to give institutions stability. But he added that the ESRC would be "happy to consider" arrangements between the training centres and pockets of excellence.

He added that there had been no blanket decision to deny funding to training units, but said that all the applications had fallen below its revised quality threshold.



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