NPC/00/02/A: EPSRC Flexible Doctoral Training Accounts

by Jeremy Hoad

The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes the proposals in document EPSRC 34-99 and supports the initiative to bring greater flexibility to the funding of doctoral level students.

The allocation of studentships to institutions and departments has undergone a number of changes in the past few years. The use of quota awards based on competitive peer review and, more recently, a quota algorithm has simplified studentship allocations and ensured that there is greater consistency and predictability of awards for institutions (paragraph 2). The further innovation of Project Students (paragraph 3) has also introduced greater variety in the allocation of awards.

The quota system does, nevertheless have some disadvantages, as identified in paragraph 5 and we will address these individually:

The appropriate length of a PhD studentship, which could differ between disciplines and the nature of the research project

The length of PhD studentships has been and continues to be a major problem for doctoral level funding. Studentships are limited to 3 years full time support which offers no flexibility for either the institution or the individual student. Doctoral level study and the time taken for successful completion and submission varies considerably between disciplines and projects and it is therefore important that funding structures reflect this diversity. Many postgraduate students face considerable difficulty if they have not completed within their funded period and this often leads to considerable delays and unnecessary stress for the student. Equally there are students who are able to complete within the three year period and for whom the extra time and resources provided are not needed. This is more common in the sciences and engineering because of the often collaborative nature of the work which is more formalised and frequently better supported than in the arts or social sciences. It would seem reasonable for the EPSRC to have a structure in place which could take advantage of the specific nature of research within the disciplines it supports to use its resources more efficiently and effectively.

The different requirements for incidental expenses between disciplines

Clearly there will be different requirements for incidental expenses between disciplines and it would be in the interests of both students and the EPSRC to make sure that appropriate levels of support are available.

The appropriate level for the student stipend

Despite recent increases in the student stipend many students still face severe financial hardship, particularly towards the end of their period of study. We believe that there should be a minimum amount for student stipends which should be consistent to all circumstances. Variations should only be entertained within the same form of study, so there would be a minimum guaranteed level of stipend for both full time and part time studentships with variations proportional to the length of the award.

The possible benefits of part-time research training, or sandwich arrangements

Traditionally part-time support and other, more flexible, arrangements for research have been ignored or poorly supported. As we move towards further continuing professional development throughout individual careers it is necessary for the support structures and opportunities provided by the Research Councils to be extended more fully to these areas. We believe this would enable the EPSRC to begin to engage with the principles of lifelong learning and meet the changing demands of potential students.

The difficulties associated with providing support for multi-disciplinary projects

As research methods and practices have changed there has been an increase in the frequency of multi-disciplinary projects which need to be supported by the EPSRC. Opportunities for departmental and institutional funding in this area have increased but the same opportunities have not been extended successfully to research students. Offering a means by which the EPSRC can support the full engagement of students in this area would be a significant improvement.

The quality of supervision, broadening training, and career advice
We do not see these areas supervision, training and career guidance as being an inherent failure of the current funding arrangements but more specifically related to the monitoring, provision and implementation of requirements as laid out in EPSRC documentation. If there are failures or limitations here it is the responsibility of the EPSRC to ensure that they are addressed, regardless of the funding structures in place. The current quota system does, nevertheless, provide difficulties for doing this as it is reliant on a mechanism which judges departments and allocates awards based mainly on one criteria the research profile and income of a department. The NPC believes that it is far more important to ensure that departments can provide a productive and supportive environment for research students and that this is not directly related to the research profile of a department, its size or income.

The gathering of accurate and timely data on student completions and career movements

The collation of such data is essential to the future planning of research student support. A particular area that needs distinction is the collation of data on student completion rates. Where the EPSRC is concerned we believe that future planning should take account of students funded by the EPSRC in the past. It would be grossly unfair for the EPSRC to take the raw figures of student completion rates without disaggregating this information further. The completion rates of students who are not funded by the EPSRC should be largely immaterial to the funding allocations to institutions. The NPC firmly believes in the opportunity of self funding students to study within their means and appropriate to their circumstances and wishes. We further believe that it is the responsibility of institutions, as public bodies, to accommodate these needs and wishes and not impose restrictive practices or expectations on these students which are largely determined by the wishes of the institutions to meet the expectations of the Research and Funding Councils.

The lack of flexibility. The present arrangements are essentially "3 years, full-time, fixed stipend (with only the possibility of a CASE enhancement) or nothing".

As noted above, we concur completely with this as a problem. Current stipends and studentships are inflexible and constricting for both students and departments. The wholesale application of this structure means that the EPSRC inevitably faces difficulties in the efficient application of its limited resources. One of the highest priorities should be appropriate support which enables students to successfully complete their studies and contribute to both the volume and quality of research. This is not helped by the static and dictatorial nature of the current funding regime.

We agree with the principles contained in paragraph 7 but believe there would have to be extensive checks and balances to ensure good practice. The proposal would appear to offer the opportunity for greater flexibility and encourage collaboration between departments and possibly institutions. However, it would be incumbent on the EPSRC to ensure that institutions were using the funds allocated through Doctoral Training Accounts appropriately, particularly since the larger sums of money involved would be easier to manipulate for the purposes of the relevant departments or institutions. The key element here should be that greater flexibility of provision and greater efficiency of resource use should be aimed at the individual students concerned.

We agree that "Academic salaries and building costs [should] not be allowed from EPSRC funds (these being provided from the other side of dual support)." (paragraph 8). It is important that the EPSRC has effective monitoring procedures to ensure this does not happen and that the new funding packages were used solely for the purposes of supporting and funding the research of students.

The Proposal identifies some areas where funds could be used and we will comment on these individually:

The student stipend (which could be set locally at a level at or above an underpinning minimum for a full-time student)

It is important that the EPSRC maintains a base level for student stipends which would be guaranteed to all students funded through Doctoral Training Accounts. The EPSRC will be aware of recent research by the OST on perceptions of postgraduate study which suggested that engineering undergraduates had expectations of the postgraduate student stipend several thousand pounds higher than it actually is. Bearing this in mind, and the opportunity for institutions to set stipends above a minimum level to attract or retain high quality students, we believe that there are important implications for future student numbers. Since the EPSRC states that the new Doctoral Training Accounts will be managed within existing budgets the clear implication is that student numbers will fall, possibly significantly, to accommodate these changes. This will not necessarily be disadvantageous to research in the areas for which the EPSRC has responsibility immediately but could have a significant impact for the future. The EPSRC has a responsibility to ensure that there is an adequate supply of high quality graduates from doctoral level study to meet the needs of higher education and the wider economy and society. We are concerned that if the numbers were to decrease there would be a recruitment crisis in the medium term for higher education with similar impacts on other areas. Greater flexibility is an admirable goal but at the end of the day the level of resource available needs to be questioned. Certainly the collation of more accurate data on student completion rates, destinations and careers will help enormously in the judgement of these issues in the future. However, it is widely accepted that the level of student stipend is simply too low at the moment, despite recent increases. We will welcome more specific data in this area to make informed decisions more possible.

Fees (to be set locally)

It is the responsibility of institutions themselves to set postgraduate fees. In recent years there has greater variation introduced which has proved confusing and misleading to potential students. Whilst this has impacted greatest on self-funding students there are also implications for the EPSRC. Because of this, although institutions should be respected in their right to set set fees, we believe the EPSRC should pay close attention to the fee levels and any variations or increases here. In this regard we believe it would be appropriate for the EPSRC to take as its standard fee rate the level set annually by the DfEE (2740 for the year 2000-2001). We propose that the EPSRC use this as a basis for its fee allocations and should an institution propose a different fee rate it be required to provide comprehensive justification for the variance. The same principle should apply for Doctoral Training Accounts where institutions would be in control of the fee rates they deducted from the overall package provided by the EPSRC.

A particular area of concern is fees for part time courses. Many institutions now charge 50% of the full time fee rate for part time courses. This is a significant increase on part time rates from five or ten years ago. We believe that this provides further difficulties when the fee rate is linked to the maximum period of study. There has been a trend for institutions to gradually reduce the maximum periods of study permitted by their regulations. It is now not uncommon for these maximum periods to be 5 years (full time) and 6 years (part time) with recommended period of 3 years and 4 years respectively. The NPC believes this to be unfair and unnecessarily restrictive. If the EPSRC is to encourage and provide the opportunity for part time study through its Doctoral Training Accounts then it is important that it ensures it is getting value for money and that institutions do not exploit the opportunity provided to gain a higher proportion of income through disproportionately high part time fees.

Consumables and other incidental expenses (such as travel and conference fees)

Clearly such expenses as these will need to be incorporated into the budgets of Doctoral Training Accounts. However, we believe it is important that the EPSRC provide guidance for institutions and departments as to appropriate levels of support in these areas. One particular concern is the opportunity for departments to "top slice" budgets to allocate funds to notional and possibly inflated costs. Many institutions charge laboratory or bench fees, departmental research costs and similar extra fees to research students which we believe are unjustifiable. This particularly impacts on self-funding students but we would be concerned that the same practices could be adopted in the management of Doctoral Training Accounts. If there are incidental costs which are identified by departments then these should be clearly and realistically budgeted for and be fully accountable in the proposals. For example, institutions often advertise fee rates which bear little relation to the fees charged, often varying by hundreds of pounds per year because of added costs. We believe that such fees or other costs should be transparent and justifiable and that the EPSRC would need to pay careful attention to budget proposals by institutions to ensure that funds were not being allocated inappropriately.

Support for part-time study, and industrial placements

Support for other forms of study apart from the standard 3-year full time fixed rate mechanism are extremely important. The NPC believes that the EPSRC should prioritise this as a key feature of the proposed Doctoral Training Accounts. However, if this is to be a successful strategy there are important implications for student support, facilities, training and monitoring procedures. The increase in part time postgraduate numbers last year was twice the rate of full time numbers (approximately 6% compared to 3% from the HESA statistics) and this has been a consistent trend in recent years. However, many institutions regardless of their size, reputation, age or research profile are still persistently ignorant of the specific needs of part time students or unwilling to implement effective support for them. Isolation is one of the main factors of disillusionment, frustration and poor performance for all postgraduate students. Part time students will continue to suffer disproportionately as long as institutional structures are targeted towards full time students. We believe that it is not enough for the EPSRC or institutions to offer financial support to part time and other more flexible forms of study. Priority must also be given to identifying and providing students with the support they need.

Some specific areas for attention are:

  • facilities (institutional)
    access to laboratories, libraries, computing centres and the extension of opening hours to accommodate different work patterns both during term time and in vacations.
  • facilities (departmental)
    providing adequate facilities for all students, both full and part time. Basic provision of study space, offices, storage space, computing facilities, access to telephone, fax. and email, pigeon holes and postgraduate notice boards.
  • supervision
    determining minimum contact requirements and support mechanisms for part time students which are appropriate to their needs and study patterns.
  • teaching
    ensuring that courses are available at different times throughout the week or year to enable access to all students.
  • training
    maintaining training courses at an academic and pastoral level which recognise the different experiences of part time students, for example in careers centres or staff development units.

Extended support (up to 4 years) when the nature of the subject or research project required it

The appropriate extension of support to students, both financial, academic and pastoral would make a great contribution to easing the current restrictive practices adopted and recognising the diversity of experience and the fluid nature of much research. We believe that there would be two basic options here (not necessarily mutually exclusive). Firstly, the decision to award a four year package from the outset, dependent upon the nature of the project and a realistic assessment of its extent. Secondly, the opportunity to offer extended funding and support to students who are on a three year (full time) course of study which either faced unforeseen delays or required further support to be successful. The same commensurate extension of support should also be made available to students in other forms of study, for example part time students. The availability of such provision would ease the management of research students in departments and would hopefully help to address the current practice of using extensions or suspensions of study in lieu of any other, more appropriate mechanisms.

Support for broadening skills training, and career advice

We do not believe that this is necessarily an area which could be identified as an advantage of Doctoral Training Accounts over the current practices but fully support the extension of support and guidance here. It is possible that where collaborative provision was adopted between institutions benefits could be gained by a sharing of experience and practice.

Paragraph 10 identifies some likely changes to the nature and extent of support offered to departments and institutions. We agree that "A Doctoral Training Account would need to be large enough for genuine flexibility to be exercised.". However, we are concerned that the possibility of differential support packages dependent upon location would be problematic to justify unless the methods adopted were consistent. We understand that there is at present a London supplement on the studentship stipend but this supplement, taken in isolation, does not address the significant geographical differentials of expenses in other locations. If the Doctoral Training Accounts are to introduce greater flexibility of provision and allow different departments and institutions to set the rates according to costs it would seem reasonable that the identification of only one or two locations to receive supplements is unnecessary. Therefore, if costs are higher in London or at Oxbridge Colleges (because of College fees) then this should be seen in the same light as differential costs elsewhere. It should therefore be the responsibility of those institutions to take account of this in the packages they offered. Indeed, many commentators on higher education have long been frustrated by the disproportionate levels of funding that go to London and Oxbridge at the expense of other institutions and areas. If the proposals are to be consistent then the implication is that increased costs for London would have to be absorbed by the institutions themselves through the advertising and distribution of funds from their Doctoral Training Accounts.

We are also concerned at the implications regarding the distribution of funds and the awarding of Doctoral Training Accounts to fewer institutions. It is important that as many institutions and departments as possible have access to Doctoral Training Accounts to ensure that there is a dynamic and flexible research culture in the UK. If these Accounts were to be limited to fewer institutions with a proven track record as judged by the quota award system then the danger is that this will ossify the existing research patterns and exclude many departments and institutions from expansion or development. We appreciate fully the benefits of collaborative research and the necessity to offer continued support to existing institutions where the best research is supported and maintained. However, we are concerned that there is the possibility that these proposals will contribute to the creation of an exclusive research club in the UK which acts to exclude other departments or institutions.

If one of the benefits of Doctoral Training Accounts is to offer greater flexibility to both institutions and students then we see no reason why institutions which are individually relatively small or with lower grant income should not be encouraged to collaborate and bid for Doctoral Training Accounts. There is the possibility that more institutions may be given access to funding if greater cooperation develops and is encouraged between institutions. We believe that this should be the focus of this area of the proposals in order to maintain and develop the best, most flexible provision of research support rather than interpreting the proposals as concentrating funding in those institutions which already gain significant funding and potentially excluding others from participation.

We agree with the advantages described in paragraph 12 (reproduced below) and believe that the Doctoral Training Account proposals offer major advantages over the current system of funding.

  • Rather than having to fill a fixed number of studentships in any year, a university could trade-off a year of lean demand against a year with buoyant demand. Places could be filled more flexibly throughout the year, rather than being largely concentrated in a pre-determined window dictated by EPSRC's processing needs.
  • EPSRC funding would be controlled through profiled payments (with expenditure reconciliation as with research grants). With universities having greater control of matching places to demand, this would essentially ensure 100% take-up of the EPSRC financial provision for doctoral training.
  • The stipend level could be set locally (at or above a prescribed minimum), according to student demand, local needs, and a university's ability to leverage other sources of funding including from within the university.
  • The provision of an EPSRC funding profile could be used to leverage other sources of external funding.
  • The period of support could be determined locally (up to a maximum of 4 years), depending on the subject area and the nature of the project.
  • Flexibility on the stipend level, the period of support, sandwich or part-time arrangements etc., should make it possible to attract a greater proportion of high calibre students.
  • Multi-disciplinary research areas could be given a more strategic consideration within universities; including the introduction of suitable additional subject training.
  • To maximise their number of students, a university would need to access critically the level of its overheads covered within the student fee.
  • Universities could plan for an appropriate level of Continued Professional Development for their doctoral graduates, paid for from their Doctoral Training Account.
  • Accounts could be opened by institutions, departments, groups of departments, or even between institutions. A strategic choice would be needed to maximise local flexibility through the accumulation of qualifying grant income.

The commitments identified as requirements of institutions in receipt of Doctoral Training Accounts (paragraph 13, listed below) are fully supported by the NPC.

  • The quality of supervision offered to doctoral students
  • The provision of accurate information on the students supported, their projects and supervisors, their eligibility for UK support, their completion dates, and their career destinations and progression;
  • The offering of broadening training and career advice to all doctoral students supported within a Training Account.
  • Funds would be disbursed broadly in line with the programme balance reflected in the algorithm.

We recognise that "There would be an administrative impact on universities." as mentioned in paragraph 14. We also sympathise with the increasing administrative burdens placed upon universities. However, we are concerned at the suggestion that the "EPSRC would preserve the right to dip stick test the arrangements within any university holding a Doctoral Training Account." and that "Account holders would need to provide a brief annual report giving the information outlined in paragraph 13.". We believe that it is important that the EPSRC has more comprehensive methods for monitoring Doctoral Training Accounts than this suggests and that institutions should be fully accountable for the use of these funds.

One option here is to introduce a more formal accreditation system for the allocation of Doctoral Training Accounts which institutions, or groups of institutions and departments, could complete. Once these various criteria were met then there could be an annual review of these procedures in the form of an administrative update with ongoing programme developments incorporated into an annual report from institutions.

We agree that similar arrangements should be used for all circumstances (paragraph 15). It is important that all research students should have the same safeguards and monitoring mechanisms in place, regardless of the nature of their programme.

Concluding Comments

The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes the proposals from the EPSRC on Flexible Support for Doctoral-Level Training and the initiative to introduce greater flexibility into the current practices. Although we have concerns regarding the specific implementation of the proposals and the interpretation of some of the ideas we believe the proposals could improve the support for doctoral level study and ensure that students receive a professional and comprehensive package.

We look forward to receiving details from the EPSRC regarding the progress of this initiative and would welcome the opportunity to contribute to discussion in this area and respond to more formal proposals from the EPSRC.