Protecting research degrees: why we must continue to train PhD students

This was originally published on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog.

By Paul Wellings

At around this time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere, we gather to celebrate the achievements of our graduands. Some students leave university to go straight into the workforce, others are looking to secure fast-track jobs in a difficult economic environment, and many will wish to continue studying for advanced degrees. While the destinations of all graduates are important, this latter group remains critical to the UK over the medium term. Last year’s Council for Industry and Higher Education report, Talent fishing, suggests that students with master’s qualifications have skillsets in high demand from business, and those with PhD qualifications make an important contribution to the national system of innovation through their varied research outputs. So the recent news that research councils are cutting funding for master’s and PhD places should be a source of concern to anyone with interests in the UK’s innovative capacity. Combined with the loss of Roberts funding for training early career researchers, it suggests that the development of the next generation of researchers will be rather patchy.

The leading universities in the UK have some shared characteristics: they admit undergraduates with high entry standards, they are research-led, they have large numbers of PhD students and they generate the lion’s share of research outputs in the form of publications and new knowledge. Three-quarters of all of the UK’s PhD graduates come from 34 UK universities, and these same universities generate more than 75% of university patent output. Not surprisingly, there are strong relationships between the number of PhD students and research publications, intellectual property income, and collaborative research income with industry. This is a pretty strong signal that training PhD students is at the heart of a vibrant research ecosystem.

The drive to make efficiencies by slowing investment in science and the research councils appears to be causing the knock-on effect on training capacity; resulting in substantial cuts to PhD places. Over time this will have an important impact on UK growth as our capacity to innovate will be on the back burner.

Government is expected to release a white paper on growth and innovation this autumn. The current data on research publications, citations per academic and the UK’s share of the top 1% of the world’s papers should impress, and this might seduce us into thinking that the research system is stable. However, all these output measures are driven by prior investment and reflect the dynamism of the best university graduate schools in the last decade. We need to make sure that our graduate schools remain open to talented UK students wishing to study for research degrees. It is the work of these people that will generate novel ideas, disruptive technologies and new products for the economy in 2020 and beyond. Without them, we run the risk of stalling the innovation system at a time when we expect the economy to have picked up.

Professor Paul Wellings is vice-chancellor of Lancaster University and chair of the 1994 Group of universities

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