RAE link to funding may thin PhD ranks

A number of old universities could see big reductions in their research student numbers as a result of a new funding methodology for PhD students, a conference on graduate education heard this week.

The decision by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to withdraw funding for training doctoral students in departments rated below 4 in the 2001 research assessment exercise led to concerns about the survival of PhD students in many new universities and in some subject areas.

Now Howard Green, outgoing president of the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), has produced data showing that a number of old universities will also lose out.

Keele University could be one of the worst hit. It entered subjects in the last RAE, and 13 of them were rated below a 4.

Hull University could be in similar difficulties because ten of its 28 entries were rated below a 4.

Also on the list were Bradford University, with five out of 18 departments below the threshold, and Salford University, with five out of ten departments below the mark.

Overall in the last RAE, a fifth of submitted staff were in departments rated at 3a or below.

Professor Green said: "The funding council needs to do more to limit the impact of this new funding regime."

He said that Scandinavian countries and Scotland, which pool research in chemistry, physics, maths and engineering, had a more collaborative approach to research.

"Universities should be encouraged to pool their expertise and share the teaching of PhD students," he said.

A spokesman for Hefce said that the decision to set a quality threshold for the new postgraduate research funding stream was made in the context of limited funding and the need to provide a reasonable level of support per student.

He added: "While it is true to say nationally that 20 per cent of all submitted staff were in departments rated 3a or below in the last RAE, only 12 per cent of postgraduate research students were enrolled in these units using 2004 data.

"When we remove from this total those students who are enrolled in units receiving research capability funding, then this proportion falls to 10 per cent."

He said the council would "react positively" to proposals to develop collaborative programmes.

Malcolm McCrae, chairman of the Warwick University graduate school and incoming chairman of the UKCGE, told the council's winter conference in York that students were likely to take a far more pragmatic approach to taught masters courses as a result of top-up fees.

"Students will want to know how masters courses will benefit them in the job market," he said. "This could slow what has been a huge increase in the number of taught masters on offer."

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

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