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Lords report raises concerns about doctoral training centres

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is warning that doctoral training centres should not become the only vehicle for training PhD students in the UK.

In a report published on 24 July, the committee says that the centres, through which groups of students train together on a four-year programme, could squeeze out other types if PhD studentships. It fears that smaller-scale fundamental research projects—many of which lead to important advances—could lose out as a result.

A particular concern is the approach taken by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The peers question why the council has cut the 2.4 per cent of its doctoral funding that had gone into project studentships.

They also argue that doctoral training centres are too narrowly focused in terms of scientific scope and are spread too thinly around the country. The report highlights that there is only one DTC for synthetic organic chemistry in the UK and no DTCs for physics in South East England.

“The DTC model for delivering postgraduate provision is a welcome development and we understand the rationale to focus on centres of excellence,” the report says. “But the DTC model should not be the only model if we are to retain a breadth of research excellence.”

The report, “Higher Education in Science Technology Engineering and Maths subjects”, also says that the UK government needs to increase its support for STEM postgraduate courses, which are not eligible for funding from the Student Loans Company. It warns that higher tuition fees, a lack of student finance, and a drop in overseas students from tighter visa rules could lead to a decline in the quality and number of STEM courses.

A drop in international students will also have a significant effect on the number of master’s and PhD graduates, argues the report. Although there was a 72 per cent increase in the number of STEM master’s graduates from 2002–3 to 2009–10, it says, more than half of those who graduated in 2010 were from overseas. Over the same period, the number of STEM PhD graduates increased by 28 per cent (26 per cent in other subjects), with 42 per cent of PhD students who finished in 2010 being from overseas. This means that UK students only contributed to 15 per cent of the growth.

In addition, says the report, these increases in graduates hide a drop or lack of growth in UK-domiciled students in certain subjects, including engineering and chemistry in PhD graduates.

The report also slams the government for knowing little about industry needs from STEM postgraduates and calls for the an expert group to be set up to formulate a strategy for STEM postgraduate provision. This group, which should have employer representatives, could examine the supply and demand of STEM postgraduates, identify weaknesses and areas of skills shortage at PhD level, according to peers.