UKRI publishes ESRC and EPSRC doctoral reviews

Both reviews highlight a lack of diversity in the doctoral student body as a significant issue

Two reviews of doctoral education – by the engineering and social sciences research councils –  have highlighted a lack of diversity among the funded student cohort as a significant issue for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to improve.

UKRI commissioned two of its research councils – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – to conduct simultaneous reviews.

Both reviews identified a lack of diversity – particularly ethnic minority representation – within the current pool of funded PhD candidates: an issue that would require time, attention and concerted effort to solve, both councils concluded.

The ESRC suggests ring-fenced funding as one potential solution to this lack of diversity. The review conducted for that council also found “evidence of socioeconomic inequalities in access to the PhD” and that “many stakeholders view current funding levels as insufficient to cover living costs”.

We must also ensure we support a more diverse and inclusive population
– Prof Alison Park, ESRC interim executive chair

The EPSRC said addressing funding and doctoral levels was a significant issue for UKRI to address, following promises of a “new deal for funding postgraduate research” in the government R&D roadmap and the People and Culture Strategy. A summer survey of postgraduate researchers found that more than half have money worries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The engineering and physical sciences research council report also touched on the importance of addressing student wellbeing issues.

The reviews also set out the need for work to improve the employability and skillsets of doctoral graduates.

On this, the ESRC report said: “In a highly competitive jobs market and rapidly changing research landscape it is imperative that core research skills training keeps pace with cutting-edge methods, particularly in relation to data management, digital data collection and analysis (including big data) and dissemination. Skills in these areas are increasingly required for academic and non-academic research careers.”

The EPSRC argued it was a case of providing “greater recognition and visibility of the wider skills developed…to ensure the employability of all doctoral graduates”. It also says all doctoral students should get the chance to broaden their skillsets outside their research, perhaps through public engagement – and steer away from “over-specialisation, which can reduce resilience and opportunities”.

Although both councils ostensibly share much in common, they both occupy very different positions within the UK doctoral landscape – and therefore enjoy different levels of influence over its development.

The EPSRC is the principal funder of doctoral education in its field. The ESRC describes itself as “the ‘flagship’ funder of UK social science PhDs”, but it accepts “there is inevitably a limit” to its influence because it funds a relatively small proportion of all UK social science PhD students.

The EPSRC says it wants to increase the number of places – and sees funding and co-funding of doctoral students by industry as a salve. The ERSC should extend the funding for the PhD to four years to give researchers time to complete skills training, the review recommended – but doing this would mean fewer funded places.

UKRI said the two reviews are “an important contribution to the evidence base for a new deal for postgraduate research”.

EPSRC executive chair Prof Dame Lynn Gladden said: “We are committed to challenging ourselves to improve the support provided to doctoral students, whose work delivers societal benefits and economic growth for the UK.”

“In a rapidly changing landscape we must adapt and innovate to keep pace and ensure doctoral students develop the skills and gain the experience they need,” said ESRC interim executive chair, Professor Alison Park. “We must also ensure we support a more diverse and inclusive population.”

Read more: Less than third of early career researchers trust promotion processes

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