ESRC Doctoral Training Centres: Do they work? New report on their impact

Researchers from the Centre for Education and  Policy Analysis (CEPA) at Liverpool Hope and partners have published the findings of their investigation into the ESRC’s Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) policy. You can read an overview below, and download their full report here: The DTC Effect
The DTC Effect: report overview
In 2009, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) launched a new doctoral training policy, which required universities to bid for funding to establish new ‘Doctoral Training Centres’ (DTCs) through which to offer their doctoral training. By the time the policy was implemented, however, the ESRC’s budget had been cut, and with it the scale of the policy.
In 2010, 83 universities had access to ESRC doctoral funding; by 2011, this number dropped by almost exactly half.
This study examined the potential broader effects of this policy on the social sciences in the UK. It drew on national level data on doctoral numbers, as well as interviews with 60 staff and doctoral students across the UK.
In brief, the report shows that:
  • The exclusion of universities from ESRC doctoral funding was borne far more heavily in the post-92 universities than by the pre-92s. This in itself raises questions about whether access to doctorates is socially inegalitarian; it has been well-documented that post-92 universities are much more likely to recruit less affluent students to their under- and postgraduate ranks.
  • Curiously, numbers of social science doctoral students at the universities with a DTC started falling from 2011 onwards, which coincides with when they were awarded a DTC. This is counter to the expectation that the status and funding of a DTC might have helped them to increase student recruitment.
  • Those universities with DTCs experienced a heavy administrative load – imposed by the ESRC – which made some of the benefits of having these centres, for both staff and students, harder to achieve. They also had to manage tensions created by the establishment and maintenance of an internal organisation that crossed departmental/disciplinary – and for some, inter-university – boundaries.
  • For universities not awarded a DTC, this was a significant blow, as they had to maintain or grow their doctoral provision without the support that ESRC funding – or the kudos that having such a centre – might bestow. For universities with a well-established doctoral system and culture, they often had the expertise and internal funding to do this, at least until they could apply for reinclusion into the ESRC fold in 2016. For those who did not, they were less able to develop and become eligible for ESRC doctoral support.
  • For students at DTC universities, there was little awareness of the form or function of a DTC, even for the students who were actually part of one. Further, for students across the sector, it was commonly reported that doctoral training and support – outside of the supervision relationship, at least – were of mixed quality, relevance, and breadth.
This report highlights potential mismatches between the theory and reality of the DTC policy. DTCs had the potential to produce a number of positive outcomes, but it appears that they are not yet being achieved, in part because of their bureaucratic and (internal) political complexity. Further, the policy has been deeply exclusionary towards post-92 universities, which is a real concern. This research is a rare foray into examining these kinds of doctoral training arrangements, which are now prevalent in the UK. Even though over 230 of them have been established to date, there is little awareness of how, and to what extent, they work – or indeed whether they work.
Dr Richard Budd, co-author, The DTC Effect

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