Science departments, struggling for research grants, run the risk of being unable to give full or even adequate support to postgraduate training and research.
There is a lack of consensus or knowledge about how university departments should be financed for taking in PhD students. But there is a growing belief that support, especially in some of the sciences, is wildly inadequate.
How much really needs to be spent on libraries, computers and laboratories used by PhD students? Many university departments do not know what they spend - or need to spend - on such facilities.
A task force set up by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils to look into the ways 10 universities costed out postgraduate support revealed such enormous variations that a more substantial inquiry was required.
In their submission to William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in advance of next month's White Paper on science and technology, both the advisory board and the higher education funding councils expressed the need to clarify responsibilities for the funding of postgraduate research students in universities.
As part of that clarification, they have set up a working group on postgraduate support under the chairmanship of Clark Brundin, president of Templeton College, Oxford, and former vice-chancellor of Warwick University. Its recommendations could have far-reaching repercussions on a matter that is becoming an increasingly political issue in universities.
The group will address the respective responsibilities of the funding councils (under the Department for Education) and research councils (now under the Office of Science and Technology), the best method of delivering postgraduate research support, and 'the appropriate level of resource' to be provided.
Dr Brundin is at pains to point out that the working group has no hidden agenda. This is not, he stresses, to be a battleground between government departments as to who should control the research budget. Moreover, he is keen to stress that because of the group's tight schedule - it must report by the summer - its recommendations should be seen as little more than a consultation document.
Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly look at whether there is a case for the further transfer of money for research and training support from the funding councils to the research councils. And it will not shy away from recommendations on the issue underlying all this: whether research should be further concentrated into research-intensive, as opposed to teaching, universities. The funding of postgraduate support has a direct bearing on this question.
The advisory board's task force, whose paper forms the starting point for Dr Brundin's working group, concluded that the most generous funding of PhD students came from departments with significant research grants and contract income. In science and engineering, the nature of PhD training seemed determined almost entirely by the resources that individual institutions could make available to support it.
Significantly, the report pointed to the likely correlation between the resources put into postgraduate research training and the novelty and quality that could be expected from it. The paper showed that departments with large amounts of research grant and contract income were able to find further funds for PhD support from those sources. Some departments only allow PhD students to be taken on by staff with research grants or considerable contract income. One 'highly prestigious' department said that it was considering a move to take only Science and Engineering Research Council students who also had sponsorship from industry in future because others were inadequately resourced.
The paper also highlighted a marked lack of understanding among academic staff about how institutions support PhD training. As a consequence, those academics were attaching too much importance to the Research Training Support Grant. This is a relatively low sum - little more than pounds 400 per student (pounds 75 from the Economic and Social Research Council) - but it comes as earmarked money to cover equipment and service expenses for studentships and is therefore the one sum for postgraduate support that academics can easily identify. Most believed that this grant was totally insufficient.
Jean-Patrick Connerade, head of physics at Imperial College, London, was a member of the advisory board task force. The questions surrounding PhD training support, he says, point to some painful conclusions.
In particular, he believes the system of PhD studentships being distributed to institutions independently of how grants are distributed needs to be reassessed. 'It is obviously better for a student to be awarded a studentship in a place that has got good research grants. We don't want to produce students who have worked on out-of-date apparatus - that makes them unemployable outside. It would make sense for research councils to earmark studentships with research grants and in that way recipients of research grants would be fulfilling a social obligation.'
But the award of studentships to departments dependent on research grant success 'would be a bit like playing Russian roulette', he adds. 'There is a danger of loading everything on the same dice.'
PhD students in departments haemorrhaging research contracts can also face problems in getting the support they need. 'A PhD student attached to a research contract is very vulnerable when that contract comes to an end, unless there are either contracts and grants available to help shoulder the cost of continuing research,' says Professor Connerade. He estimates that a research student working over three years in his department on worthwhile research would cost pounds 100,000, 'and I'm being very conservative'.
According to advisory board figures, the university block grant, fees and the Research Training Support Grant would provide a physics department with no more than around pounds 5,500 annually per student.
The presence of research grant and contract income is therefore crucial when it comes to adequate PhD support in the sciences. The result, thinks Professor Connerade, is that small departments in particular are suffering.
The ability of universities to support PhD students from general funds is increasingly being questioned. Howard Newby, chairman of the Economic and Social Research Council and a member of the new working group, says a further transfer of funds to research councils will be one of the strategies considered once the proper costs of PhD support have been established.
Dr Brundin says the lack of clarity and co-ordination in the support of PhD training is beginning to throw up many questions: 'For example, one of the things that is not terribly clear is how universities with a body of research students should fund the enhancement of library facilities for those students. If an institution does not have proper library facilities, should you develop those libraries? And through what mechanism? Or do you send the students where the good libraries are? These are political issues.'
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