Plans to cut funding to lower-rated university faculties will widen the gap between the postgraduate haves and have-nots, critics say. Hilary Wilce reports

Changes in the way universities are funded to supervise PhD students, along with increased pressure on postgraduates to finish their theses speedily, could alter the pattern of postgraduate provision in England and substantially undermine the country's research base.

Observers say that the changes will hit some regions, and some subject areas, particularly hard, and that part-time postgraduates - many of them women juggling their studies with caring for families - will be among those most affected.

From this autumn, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has withdrawn funding for the training of doctoral students in faculties rated below four in the research assessment exercise (RAE), except in some priority areas such as health and sports science. This is a cost-cutting exercise that continues the push towards concentrating research in centres of academic excellence.

But the universities most affected by the change say there is no proven relationship between the quality of a faculty's research and the calibre of teaching it offers postgraduates, and that the move will have long-lasting repercussions on academic provision. Professor Alistair McCulloch, head of research at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, says it will reduce the overall number of postgraduate places and hit some disciplines, especially in areas such as management, engineering, computer science and environmental science, particularly hard. It will also shrink regional provision.

"In education, in the North-west, from the Cheshire border up to Scotland, the only two institutions which will now qualify for funding are Manchester Metropolitan and Lancaster. It is the effect of cutting out institutions like ours, which have direct links into schools, that I worry about. We could end up with a complete divorce between practice and research."

He is also concerned about the impact on students and that the blanket cuts will knock out small but important areas of specialist research (see box). His analysis of the 2003 RAE returns shows that there are proportionally far more part-timers in those faculties which come in below the cut-off point for funding. In environmental sciences, for example, 43 per cent of research students in units of assessment scoring 3a or below were part-time, as opposed to 23 per cent in all departments. In computer science, the figures were 30 per cent as opposed to 19 per cent.

Margaret Forsyth, who completed an English PhD at Edge Hill five years ago and now works in university administration, says the move is bound to discriminate against mature students, like her, who have families and are not free to move away to study. It may also lead to university teachers putting in unpaid time to supervise research students. "I think people feel disappointed and let down. This seems to favour certain institutions and certain types of student. New research blood will diminish in other places and anything that impacts on research impacts on teaching."

Simon Felton, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, says that although his 400,000 members have not yet taken on board the impact of the change, "having good-quality research is vital for good-quality teaching and learning. If you don't have the ability to research, everything is affected."

However, Professor Howard Green, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, points out that the move does not affect large numbers and most universities will probably undertake a paper-shuffling exercise, shunting students from an unfunded faculty to a funded one, or deciding to cooperate more closely with each other.

But all the new universities are affected significantly and "it is almost inevitable" that the gap between the well-funded universities and the others will widen, he says. In a paper co-written with Professor Stuart Powell, of the University of Hertfordshire, he argues that the link between the RAE and the training of research students "is both iniquitous and ultimately disadvantageous to the national research effort".

Key areas such as food science and the built environment will be affected, and education is particularly hard hit, the report says: "Approximately one in four of all students studying in education for a research degree will receive no funding from Hefce in the immediate future. This matters because teachers and heads need to be able to access local advanced level professional development.

The authors also argue that there is no evidence of a correlation between high RAE scores and better PhD completion rates, or any other measure of PhD success. "The consequences of Hefce's current course of action may well be a progressive reduction in the number of postgraduate research students, which is already showing signs of decline, the loss of any provision in some parts of the country and in some disciplines, and ultimately and fundamentally an undermining of the research base - already struggling in some areas and dominated by overseas research students. Such consequences, should they occur, would constitute a grave abrogation of Hefce's basic responsibilities."

"I'm surprised there hasn't been more uproar," says Janet Metcalf, director of the UK Grad programme. "There are a lot of concerns about the concentration of research. PhD students are the lifeblood of academic life. If you stop funding them, how are institutions to sustain their academic base?"

Dr John Anchor, head of business studies, which is rated 3b, at Huddersfield University, estimates that the number of PhD places in business and management at his university could drop from 38 to 25.

"The idea behind this - that those deemed more eminent in the research area are automatically therefore the best for PhD supervision - is very flawed," he says. "Within a 3b department you may well have people who are five star." Also, the qualities needed to be a high-flying researcher are very different from those needed to be a good supervisor and mentor.

Professor Tony Fell, head of the graduate school at the University of Bradford, says each university will be affected differently, although the morale of people in all affected departments is bound to be lowered, and universities could end up losing top people from indifferent departments. "I know of one man here who has felt he had to move from Bradford to a more prestigious place nearby because of it."

Meanwhile, the Quality Assurance Agency is reviewing postgraduate programmes in the light of its revised code of practice. "So if an individual institution is successful in that, why shouldn't they be funded?" says Alistair McCulloch. "The RAE is being used for something it was never designed for."

All observers fear that the greatest long-term effect will be a two-tier system, with middle-class children going to well-funded institutions and other students getting an entirely different kind of university experience. It could also hamper efforts to further widen participation in higher education. "Institutional reputation does have a correlation with the research profile. I think there could be lots of unintended consequences further down the road," says McCulloch.

Meanwhile, many PhD students are being leaned on by their supervisors to complete their PhDs faster, according to the National Postgraduate Committee, which believes this is a result of funding councils putting a financial squeeze on departments where PhDs take the most time to finish.

According to Hefce figures, 71 per cent of full-time students finish within seven years, but only 34 per cent of part-timers. And while 80 per cent of funded students finish within seven years, only 59 per cent of unfunded ones do.

Some welcome this pressure. Howard Green believes that all PhD students could finish within a relatively short time period, if appropriately managed. "After all, all contract research is done within limited time, and undergraduate students have to finish in three years or they don't get their degree."

Research students, however, say these new pressures will penalise women caring for children or elderly relatives, and other part-timers who have to work while they study.

A specialist who's staying put

Mary Dean is a botanist who is coming to the end of a PhD at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, where she has been part of a team researching a group of sedges. Some of these plants are rare, she says, so there are conservation aspects to the work. "And then some need a colder, more Arctic environment. You find them on mountain tops and with a more northerly distribution, and they are significant when looking into things like global warming."

Although work is being done on sedges in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, the Edge Hill team is unique in the UK. "We are well-known, and often consulted. These changes in funding mean only departments which get 5 on the RAE score will be funded, but that doesn't take into account specialisms like ours in departments below that."

She would have found it difficult to pursue a PhD elsewhere. "I have elderly parents and I like to be around for them. I wanted to stay locally." HW