The 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities presented "skewed" data and "poor research" when making the case for greater concentration of PhD student funding, according to an adviser to the Government's postgraduate review.
Wendy Purcell, vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth and an external adviser to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' review of postgraduate provision, said research concentration had been "the most contentious area" of its work.
She also said that publication of the review's final report had been "accelerated", adding that its findings may prompt the extension of the widening-participation agenda into the postgraduate arena.
The review, which finished gathering its submissions in December 2009, is being led by Adrian Smith, director-general of science and research at BIS.
Speaking at a UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) conference at the British Library on 15 February, Professor Purcell stressed that she was offering her personal views rather than those of BIS.
She said the 1994 Group had presented "a very skewed data set" when making the case to be included in a research elite that would receive a greater proportion of state funding for doctoral work.
"We are all very clear about where the Russell Group stands," she said. "It is the 1994 Group that is evidencing some very poor research skills, in my view."
The view from 1994
The 1994 Group submission includes an analysis of postgraduate provision in the UK that says the 1994 and Russell groups are "clearly dominant in the sector in terms of the volume of PhDs produced", and calls for a quality threshold for funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
"This would still allow all institutions to provide PhDs if they wish, but provision below the quality threshold would be reliant on fee income rather than government funds," it says.
Professor Purcell added that there had been calls for a concentration of funding on a "top four" of universities, but said she favoured an emphasis on the quality of research, rather than its location: "It isn't the case that we should think about a postgraduate training environment being available only in the top four."
Some regions would be neglected by such an approach, leaving "many students unable to access very high quality on their doorstep", Professor Purcell added.
She also said that the report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, led by former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, was "occupying an important space" in the review's thinking.
She added that some of the widening-participation focus may now concentrate "on a different segment: postgraduates".
However, Professor Purcell did not discuss financial support for graduate students, which is also being covered by the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, led by Lord Browne of Madingley.
A BIS spokeswoman said there was no fixed publication date for the Smith review's final report: however, it is thought that it could be published next month.
Malcolm McCrae, chair of UKCGE, said: "UKCGE would see any further efforts to focus postgraduate research funding as having an effect on sustainability for institutions not in the chosen few."