ESRC Training Board Consultation: Review of the Allocation of Studentship Awards

June 2003

  1. This Association (MeCCSA) represents departments and
    scholars in its field in UK universities. Our fields
    extend across both social science and humanities disciplines,
    and both research and postgraduate training fall within
    the remit of the ESRC and the AHRB.

  2. We welcome this opportunity to comment on the ESRC studentship
    scheme. Our comments are guided by the following principal
    concerns:

    1. Our field is often impeded by the uncertainty of
      its interdisciplinary status, posing difficulties
      for students and departments in deciding where best
      to seek accreditation or funding. We would welcome
      further clarity in this area, though it is not a
      primary focus of this consultation.

    2. One consequence of that uncertainty is a severe
      under-funding of postgraduate training in our field,
      which poses worries for the future of its research
      base, a concern very clearly articulated by the RAE
      panel primarily dealing with our field (Panel 65)
      in its final summary report.

  3. We are concerned that this consultation is taking place
    so soon after the 2001 recognition exercise, effectively
    preventing the lessons of even its first year of operation
    from being fully digested. Significant changes in the
    immediate future could be very unhelpful to Departments
    and students, and may require further modification in
    the light of recommendations arising from the Roberts
    Report, and implementation of various proposals in the
    White Paper on Higher Education. While we find many aspects
    of the current arrangements unsatisfactory, we are wary
    of premature and unduly frequent modification to a system
    many already find difficult to negotiate and frequently
    changing. We have not undertaken a full consultation
    with our members on this exercise, and would expect a
    fair degree of variation in approaches to it across the
    sector.

  4. We very much welcome the broad underlying aspiration
    of directing studentships to the best students, with
    no undue focus on particular types of institution. We
    also welcome the increasing role of research training
    in doctoral research supervision and management.

  5. We have considerable concern at undue concentration
    of student support in a narrow range of institutions.
    In 2001 47 per cent of 509 new awards were held in just
    ten institutions. Our own fields suffer from under-representation.
    It is impossible to detect from the disciplinary breakdown
    in ESRC figures how many awards were made in our fields,
    but only five were awarded to ‘multi-disciplinary’ applications.
    It is unlikely that the deficiencies in ESRC support
    are remedied by AHRB support. Of 561 ‘B’ (doctoral)
    awards last year provided by the AHRB only 11 were in
    cultural studies while 18 were in film studies, a more
    familiar territory for the Board. Many more than this
    were made in practice areas associated with media studies,
    but the research base across humanities and social science
    aspects of our fields appears not to be receiving adequate
    support from either the ESRC or AHRB. One factor is the
    relatively low proportion of graduates in our field (compared
    to many other cognate areas) going into postgraduate
    study of any kind. While this is at least in part because
    of their very high employability, and the relative attractions
    of salaries in appropriate sectors compared with the
    diminishing allure of academic employment, it is also
    inevitably a response to limited funding support.

  6. We welcome the recognition that research training should
    form part of the development of doctoral research. We
    therefore support the assessment of outlets for the capacity
    to provide such training to a sufficient standard. Like
    others we have strong reservations about the range and
    diversity of research methodologies implicitly required
    of students in such training, and would welcome a more
    relaxed and varied regime, offering students choice.
    We also accept that quality assurance for such provision
    requires some concentration so that students can undertake
    their training in common with others, and with some security
    about the critical mass of provision which such concentration
    affords. Equally we recognise that in our fields there
    is a wide dispersion of research expertise across institutions,
    and that students may receive very strong research supervision
    in departments where small research groups, or individuals,
    are working to a very high standard.

  7. This lead us to support the use of a hybrid system,
    in which the allocation of a quota of awards to some
    institutions would allow greater autonomy to departments,
    provide greater potential for forward planning, and may
    reduce the administrative role of the ESRC. We are wary
    of the possibility that too much stability in the system
    may lead to weaker students being supported by departments
    needing to fill their quota at the expense of stronger
    students working in areas outside the expertise of quota
    holding departments. We therefore favour the retention
    of an element of competition.

  8. We do not regard external research funding as a suitable
    metric for the assessment of departmental eligibility
    for quotas. In our field, as in many others, this is
    not a major indicator of research quality or expertise,
    as recognised by the RAE panel.

  9. We are concerned that a quota system too rigidly associated
    with discipline specific training may disadvantage inherently
    interdisciplinary areas such as ours. It is therefore
    vital that interdisciplinary provision (including that
    provided inter-departmentally, or even across institutions),
    is not excluded from a quota system. The consultation
    paper is a little unclear on the application of quotas
    to subject areas or to institutions (given greater emphasis).
    The latter formulation may be more appropriate to avoid
    the difficulty we outline here.

  10. We envisage some advantages in quota allocations being
    applied to 1+3 studentships with a greater element of
    competition in +3 studentships. . Quota allocations are
    probably less suitable for +3 studentships only; many
    of such students will have been self-funding in a prior
    training year, and will be based at the department where
    they wish to undertake their research.

  11. We are concerned at the implications of too heavy an
    emphasis on a quota system for mature students and others
    for whom mobility is problematic. The unavailability
    of support at an institution within convenient reach
    of a home base from which travel or moving is impractical,
    may well disadvantage many categories of student.

  12. We envisage a number of practical difficulties in the
    application and assessment of procedures arising from
    the experience of previous quota systems, in which at
    one and the same time there were unfilled quota places
    which had hurriedly to be filled by local graduates,
    while other applicants were offered places at more than
    one institution that held a quota. The logistics of this
    need further consideration and consultation.

  13. Further thought also needs to be given to the disparity
    in information available for 1+3 applicants and for +3
    applicants, which at present bedevils the assessment
    process

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