Nerc unveils doctoral training partnership network

Research council reveals details of its scheme for PhD provision

The Natural Environment Research Council has revealed that its £100 million new doctoral training partnership network will feature 38 universities, compared to the 55 that were previously given PhD studentships.

The universities have organised themselves into 15 partnerships, which also include non-academic organisations such as businesses, public and third sector organisations.

Kirsty Grainger, head of skills and careers at Nerc, said the reduction was due to an explicit concentration agenda adopted by the council aimed at improving the quality of its responsive mode PhD provision by promoting competition between groupings.

She said the policy had been decided upon with the needs of students in minds, though it had also been informed by the adoption of similar doctoral training arrangements by other research councils. The Arts and Humanities Research Council became the latest to unveil such a model last month.

The partnerships will inherit Nerc’s existing requirement for 30 per cent of its funded PhD students to work with and undertake research projects “directly relevant to” the non-academic partners, but the number of such partners involved – 280 - will be 40 per cent higher than 2011 levels.

“It is eminently sensible to try to expands students’ horizons in this way and increase their employability for a wide range of careers,” Ms Grainer said. “The review group that suggested the DTP model said it is the professional and transferable skills as well as excellent research training experience that will equip the students in the best way. It ties in with impact agenda but that is not a driver for it.”

The £20 million annual investment over five years represents an 18 per cent increase on current Nerc spending on PhD studentships. The total number of students funded – 240 a year - will remain the same, but institutions will now be able to fund them for four years rather than 3.5 years under the current model (which assigns PhD funding to institutions in proportion to their success in winning Nerc research grants).

Ms Grainger said Nerc had turned down five bids for DTP funding, but she emphasised that there would be another competition in five years and that Nerc’s directive mode training budget would still be distributed in open competition.

Nerc chief executive Duncan Wingham said: “If UK environmental sciences are going to continue to prosper, we need to make sure we get the best from our students. These DTPs position us to compete in an increasingly competitive global environment by training students in the best possible way to use environmental sciences to help meet the challenges and opportunities facing us today.”

Universities and science and minister David Willetts said: “This significant investment highlights the government’s commitment to supporting postgraduate training and research in the environmental sciences. The strong support for this programme from a number of international partners, such as BP, Microsoft and Arup, is enormously encouraging.”

The 15 partnerships will be led by the universities of Sheffield, Birmingham, Edinburgh, East Anglia, Bristol, Reading, Leeds, Southampton, Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester, Imperial College London, University College London and Lancaster and Durham universities

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