Aberdeen has stunned the university world with a £2.2m campaign to find 50 of the cleverest PhD students from around the globe. Jim Kelly finds out why

Aberdeen University, the fifth oldest in the UK, has done something very modern. Its decision to launch a high-profile media talent hunt for 50 new doctoral students to bolster its image as a research-led university is a first - on both sides of the Atlantic. The big questions are why did they do it, and will others follow suit?

Aberdeen University, the fifth oldest in the UK, has done something very modern. Its decision to launch a high-profile media talent hunt for 50 new doctoral students to bolster its image as a research-led university is a first - on both sides of the Atlantic. The big questions are why did they do it, and will others follow suit?

The scheme, which offers studentships across Aberdeen's top departments with a hefty £15,000 a year in financial support, is superficially a £2.25m celebratory gesture to mark the prospect of the university's sixth century as a seat of learning. But the real reasons run much deeper, and hold lessons for the sector.

"Its a terribly pompous thing to say but we are trying to adopt a paradigm here that says by taking very good students and putting them at the feet of scholars we will produce the highest possible levels of academic research," says Professor Duncan Rice, Aberdeen's principal and one of the growing band of UK university leaders with extensive US experience.

But why, as he puts it, did Aberdeen go for the "batch mode" of recruitment, offering so many studentships at one go, funded from university coffers?

"I think that the senior people around here felt it was time to make a serious gesture. We are trying to make an ambitious statement, one that we know is not without its costs," he says.

Superficially, what is happening at Aberdeen does have echoes in the US.

"Right now there are many public universities all trying to become 'top public universities' and so you see tactics like those you are seeing at Aberdeen," says Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Education - the US online commentator. He points to a campaign at the University of Florida, which is recruiting on a wide front under a new Graduate Fellowship Initiative.

This is the risk inherent in Aberdeen's pitch - that it will be seen as a slightly desperate attempt to be seen among the research giants like Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial, just as US institutions like Florida try to emulate Ivy League colleges.

But Aberdeen's bold campaign seems to have successfully avoided the pitfall of looking defensive.

"The university's statement achieves many things - it is saying look at us, we are focused," says Rosemary Stamp, group brand director for the education consultancy Euro RSGC Riley, which helps universities consider marketing strategies.

"I think attitudes have changed here," agrees Stuart Palmer, the deputy vice chancellor (research) at Warwick. "It was once seen as not being good for your reputation. Students thought there was something wrong. Now I think people see this as prestigious universities making sure they have the very best students."

Professor Mary Ritter, pro-rector for graduate students affairs at Imperial, also questions the parallel with US public universities.

"I think there is already a market in PhDs in the UK but it is driven from the top - not like the market in the US. Top institutions here all want the best. We are trying to do this not from weakness but strength." Imperial has offered batches of studentships before, she says, but usually by subject.

"I think we could cluster them more and I am working towards that - but I think clustering them in subjects might be more effective - say in engineering - otherwise it becomes so broad you lose the focus," she says.

Ritter thinks there is one element of the US market which will be replicated in the UK. American universities compete in terms of the stipends and financial packages they can offer, and Aberdeen's pitch is clearly at the élite end of the spectrum.

In Imperial's experience financial factors carry a lot of weight, says Ritter. For example, places offered with the Wellcome Trust - at £16,500 a year - tend to prompt much more interest than Medical Research Council offers at £14,000 a year.

There is one other US parallel. Some élite universities do run schemes to recruit large numbers of bright students, but they tend to be in postdoctoral areas. Chicago - an example mentioned by Rice - runs the Harper-Schmidt Programme, where up to 30 students at a time follow research fellowships, with an emphasis on developing teaching skills.

UK universities have embarked on similar schemes in the past - such as the Warwick Research Fellowships in the mid-1990s, which offered 50 places for postdoctoral study over six years, often followed by a full-time appointment to faculty. Such schemes, like Aberdeen's, seek to bolster the long-term quality of research and future teaching standards.

So will other universities be tempted to follow Aberdeen's example? The decision is a strategic one and depends on the balance of finely judged costs and benefits.

First, the costs. A report for the Higher Education Policy Unit earlier this year analysed new data which showed that the real net cost of a laboratory research degree was a staggering £87,000 - and £52,000 for library-based doctorates.

"This was a lot more expensive than people thought and it has woken a lot of people up to the value for money argument," says Professor Howard Green, chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education. And costs will, if anything, rise in the short term. If the UK has to fall in line with EU doctoral models, funding may in future have to stretch over four years, not three. The government is also pressing universities to follow the recommendations of the Roberts Review on science and technology, which called for better financial support for doctoral students, more professional programmes of study, career development and in-built generic skills training.

"What's needed is a formal contract between the PhD student and the university - so that they don't just get to see their supervisor if they're lucky," says Jim Ewing, the general secretary of the student-based National Postgraduate Committee.

Now, the benefits. Other than generating fees, and providing a relatively cheap supply of research assistants, PhD students are, of course, the faculty of tomorrow. Schemes like that at Chicago acknowledge this. But universities have to judge the extent to which they will keep their PhD students, rather than train them for others.

"I think that in areas like science, engineering and medicine there's this gap between the PhD and an appointment - with probably two post-doc positions first. In the arts it's more likely a university would look at a very bright 25-year-old as someone for a lectureship," says Professor Palmer.

But the big advantage of a thriving PhD cohort is on research quality. In 2001 the Research Assessment Exercise determined the allocation of £5bn in UK funding. The next round is due in 2008. The quality of PhDs attracted to a department is crucial in a market where the biggest players are getting a bigger and bigger share of the distributed public funding. Significantly, Aberdeen's advertised posts for PhD students are largely in areas of existing, or emerging, academic strength.

If universities like Aberdeen decide that they should compete in the PhD market there is a strong argument to do so now.

"The big factor is going to be student debt. Are students in 2009 or 2010 going to want to do three or four more years of work with no chance of clearing those debts? Or even perhaps ending up with extra debts?" asks Palmer.

"There is a feeling that universities need to build up their portfolio now so that they will be able to continue attracting students into the new regime."

Those universities that decide they can afford to compete - and for those wanting to stay in the top flight there is little choice - may well follow Aberdeen's lead and go for high-profile, strategic, block recruitment of the best students. Further down this line another possibility lies: the establishment of full-scale, US-style graduate schools.

"We might do that at some point in the future - as may others," says Rice.

Ancient and modern

Aberdeen University, founded in 1495, is one of a handful of ancient universities in the UK, and one determined to retain an international research profile in the modern world.

Its Sixth Century Campaign, launched in 1999, aims to raise £150m for investment by 2010. In 2002 a new Institute of Medical Sciences (right) was opened ­ an echo of Aberdeen's claim to have offered the English-speaking world's first ever chair in medicine.

Aberdeen has 13,000 students and 3,000 faculty staff. In 2004-5 there were 1,200 postgraduate research students, and 2,000 taught postgraduate students. In the Research Assessment Exercise of 2001 Aberdeen picked up 10 five-star departmental ratings, including community-based clinical subjects, law, French, biological sciences, and theology, divinity and religious studies.

Today it would claim its research performance is even stronger, and highly focused. Multidisciplinary initiatives are increasingly important, such as the flagship Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, Anthropology of the North, the new Centre for Modern Thought, and the Teachers for a New Era project. New work is also being done in the area of conflict resolution and reconciliation.

Aberdeen is a stately but lively student city. The old university ­ itself the result of a Victorian merger with a 16th century rival founded in the New Town ­ shares the city with the University of Robert Gordon, formerly a technical institute and now a leading exponent of vocational degrees. Attractions include the unspoiled beaches of the north-east coast and the nearby Cairngorm Mountains. Travel is arduous however, unless you fly.