How new British PhD funding damages UK research and undergraduate education

In the UK (like most places), science PhDs are mostly paid for off of government grants.  Sometimes this is part of a normal research grant, or sometimes it is a direct allocation of funding for PhD studentships from a research council.  However, recently at least two British research councils (the two I work with most) EPSRC and BBSRC, have decided
  1. that you can no longer have PhD studentships on grants, and 
  2. to allocate PhD studentships based on the amount of income a university gets from them.  
This latter unfortunately depends not only on the quality of the researchers there, but also on the size of the university (the number of people who can apply for grants).  The upshot is that Bath, recently ranked the fifth best university in the UK, has trouble getting any funding to pay PhD students.

Small universities, or at least universities with small class sizes, are better for undergraduates more generally.  As with all learning, having more attention from your teachers helps.  But if small universities can't have PhD students, then we also can't have well-qualified teaching assistants to work in small groups with the undergraduates.  Worse, no serious researcher in science or engineering would work somewhere where they can't have PhD students.  PhD students are an essential part of university research.  Since professors are both researchers and teachers, students at small universities are no longer going to have good teachers either.  So the UK is seriously compromising both its research and its undergraduate education with this policy.

The excuse the councils give for this is concern that PhD students do better when they work in decent-sized cohorts and attend classes aimed at them together.  Small universities can't have enough PhD students to really do either of these.  Historically, this has been a serious problem when you compare postgraduate education in Europe and the USA, particularly for the UK.  The problem for the UK is that they will sometimes accept students into their PhD programs directly after their undergraduate degree, so these students  may only have had 3 years of taught courses.  In most of Europe, students have always done 5 years – currently this is split into an undergraduate 3 years and a 2 year Masters program, but historically it was just called a 5-year diploma.  Nevertheless, Europe has also come up with a brilliant solution to this problem: specialist taught postgraduate schools for two weeks which let students from across Europe and even around the world learn from the leaders of their field.  Will teaches at one of these for quanitative social sciences in Ljubljana every year.

I attended a NATO-funded Advanced Studies Institute on Autonomous Agents in 1993 (organised by Luc Steels).  Among my classmates were Sebastian Thrun, who is now directing the research for Google cars and teaching AI at Stanford, which is now being broadcast online to over 100,000 students.  Another was Giulio Sandini, now the Director of Research at the Italian Institute of Technology.  Needless to say I learned a lot – more than I learned in three of the courses I had to talke at MIT, and about the same as the two MIT courses I learned something useful I didn't already know in (theory of computation and principles of computing systems (which was mostly about concurrency).  I got out of taking one course at MIT because they decided the 8 courses I took at Edinburgh were good for one MIT course; I only needed to take six to graduate.)  But back to the NATO ASI, I made friends that I kept in contact with for years, they were all like classmates to me.

So do I worry that my PhD students at a small University don't get enough education?  Well, I do worry, so I generally only accept students who have a good Masters degree (or European diploma), and then I make a point of sending them to specialist courses and conferences.  Recently I've realised the most important thing is for them to work side-by-side with great researchers full time for a while, so I'm making more of an effort to hire postdocs and to send them to larger laboratories than my own for a while.  But having taken these precautions, I'm confident they are getting awesome educations.  Even though Bath is a small university.






The bottom line then is that this is bad policy.  The UK is compromising their undergraduate teaching, their capacity for research, and their competitive standing in global academia by choosing research universities on the basis of size rather than exclusively by their quality.  They get no real advantage out of this that would not be better won by just increasing the standard of educations required for their PhD degrees, which incidentally they are already doing.  This is a shame.
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