Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Research Councils UK (RCUK)


  1.  Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership that champions the research supported by the eight UK Research Councils. Through RCUK the Research Councils are creating a common framework for research, training and knowledge transfer. Further details are available at

  2.  This memorandum is submitted by RCUK and represents our independent views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI). RCUK welcomes the opportunity to respond to these inquiries from the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee.[1]

  3.  This memorandum provides evidence from RCUK in response to both inquires addressing the main topics and questions identified by the Committee, in relation to the Future Sustainability of the Higher Education Sector: purpose, funding and structures and the Bologna Process.


The role of universities over the next 5-10 years

  4.  The eight Research Councils have a combined budget of £2.6 billion (2006-07) of which the majority is invested in UK universities to support:

    —  an extensive range of world class research;

    —  postgraduate training (Masters degrees, PhDs & EngDocs);

    —  fellowships for researchers at each stage of their careers;

    —  research infrastructure, including IT, data management, and state of the art equipment;

    —  knowledge transfer initiatives to encourage the exploitation of research outputs; and

    —  initiatives to encourage researchers to engage with the general public to raise scientific awareness.

  5.  The Research Councils estimate that annually their funding supports some 30,000 researchers through research grants, fellowships and studentships, including 15,500 postgraduate research students. Funding decisions are made on the basis of independent, expert peer review. Research funds are awarded to universities in the form of project grants, with funding for postgraduate training being grants to individuals or as block grants to universities.

  6.  Over the next 5-10 years the Research Councils will individually and collectively continue to invest in a balanced portfolio of activities to contribute to the Government's vision that the UK should be one of the most attractive locations in the world for research and innovation. The Research Councils will play their part in ensuring that the UK is a key knowledge hub in the global economy, with a reputation not only for outstanding scientific and technical discovery, but also a world leader at exploiting that knowledge to deliver benefits for the UK in terms of new goods and services and in terms of better healthcare, better public services, policy making and cultural benefits. The Research Councils, as the largest collective funders of postgraduate research students, have a direct interest in the provision of high quality research training in universities. Although doctoral candidates are students rather than employees in the UK they are also on the first step of a research career and have many distinctive features setting them apart from undergraduates.

What do students want from universities?

What should the student experience involve, including for international students?

  7.  The Research Councils fund postgraduate research degrees (Masters, PhDs and EngDocs), which are an important part of the student provision within universities.

  8.  In the foreword to "What do PhDs do?"" Sir Gareth Roberts states "Postgraduate study is fundamental to the development of higher level skills and the preparation of people who will engage with the problems of the next generation. The process of achieving a doctorate develops an enquiring mind, problem solving abilities and the ability to assimilate, articulate and defend new ideas. This intensive training equips the students to rise to challenges and be flexible and adaptable; all valuable attributes for today's knowledge- based environment." The Research Councils' experience is that this is what postgraduate students want from their university study, plus relevant training that will enable them to pursue their career choices within the university sector and outside. As such the Research Councils are keen to ensure that postgraduate training fulfils these requirements and have worked with the QAA who have developed a code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education: postgraduate research programmes. This provides a framework for the development of a university's policies and to inform student expectations in an environment that differs from that for undergraduate study. It identifies a comprehensive series of system-wide principles covering matters relating to the management of academic quality and standards in higher education. The code is a statement of good practice that has been endorsed by the higher education community. The code includes precepts about the research environment, clear definition of responsibilities, appropriate supervision and agreement of a student's development needs. The "Joint Skills Statement"" sets out the skills that doctoral research students funded by the Research Councils are expected to develop during their research training, which as well as research skills and techniques includes personal skills, communications skills, team building and networking and career management.

  9.  The Research Councils jointly fund the UK GRAD Programme, which supports the academic sector to embed personal and professional skills development into research degree programmes (RDP). Both through UK GRAD and other projects, the Research Councils engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including research students and employers and this helps to inform development both of the programme and the wider agenda for researchers' skills.

What do employers want from graduates?

Skills base, applied research, links with industry?

  10.  The view from the majority of the business community representatives who advise and work with the Research Councils is that what they value about the UK research base is its broad range of expert knowledge and its highly skilled people. In terms of skills there are been a number of helpful recent reports and studies from employer groups including:

    —  the Leitch Review of Skills (December 2006);

    —  the Engineering and Technology Board report "Engineering UK: a statistical guide to labour supply and demand in engineering & technology" (November 2005);

    —  the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries report "Sustaining the Skills Pipeline in the Pharmaceutical & Biopharmaceutical Industries" (November 2005);

    —  the Roberts Report "SET for Success" (April 2002).

  11.  In addition, the recent report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) "International Competitiveness—Businesses working with UK universities" (2006), reflects the views of a range of multinational businesses. This identified that a spirit of inquiry and curiosity, problem solving, constructive questioning and lateral thinking are key skills for graduate and postgraduate recruits.

  12.  The acquisition of transferable skills plays a major role in future employability and the ability of PhDs to contribute to the economy. Research Councils have been actively supporting the university sector through direct funding: Using these drivers RCUK will continue to promote sharing of practice in skills delivery and embedding of the skills within the PhD thus improving the skills of PhD graduates beyond the substantially increased baseline achieved since 2003. Specifically we will encourage more skills with clearer relevance to academic and non-academic employers by:

    —  engaging with industry to ensure wider access to entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer and business skills;

    —  fostering development and delivery of researcher skills such as quantitative methods, public engagement and outreach to schools; and

    —  the UKGRAD programme. This aspect features as a high priority in our future activity.

  13.  The UK GRAD programme includes a network of regional hubs which support universities and supervisors in their region to deliver high quality needs-based personal and professional development for researchers. There is also a national programme of courses to support the personal development and teamwork skills of postgraduate researchers as well as events and publications.

  14.  It is critical that: (a) industry engages with the universities to help define the skills that they require and whether they are satisfied with the outputs and outcomes of research training and that (b) universities address whether they are meeting the needs and expectation of employers. The Research Councils have encouraged connections between these two aspects through: promoting industrial collaboration during research and training through schemes such as (CASE) Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering, Engineering Doctorate etc. The projects for about 25% of the doctoral candidates with funding from the Research Councils include formal collaboration with companies and organisations with an interest in using the outcomes of their research.


A stable, internationally competitive, HE sector and internationally-competitive research capacity

  15.  The UK has an international reputation for outstanding scientific and technical discovery. In terms of its research base the UK is internationally excellent and highly productive, and by many measures is second only to the US in terms of the quality of its output. This reputation is built on the UK's R&D capacity—excellent skilled people, state of the art facilities and laboratories and a supportive regulatory and research funding environment. HE plays a major role in providing this capacity.

  16.  Successive studies have shown that the UK's economic competitiveness is underpinned by a spectrum of research which ranges from what can be termed basic, or curiosity driven research to strategic and user driven research that is directly targeted at specific business need or social and economic issues. Maintaining this spread of investment is essential—speculative and novel research provides the ideas and knowledge on which more applied investments can be made to generate new goods, services or policy or cultural benefits.

  17.  In a healthy research base the relative importance of different goals and priorities, and the levels of support provided, will ebb and flow over time in response to new knowledge, technological challenges and new strategic economic and social needs. The key to success is to ensure that the UK universities have sufficient agility and incentives to capitalise on new knowledge, technologies and socio-economic priorities, whilst retaining strength and expertise in core areas and those of strategic importance.

  18.  It is the role of the Research Councils to fund and support a balanced portfolio of research activities in this dynamic environment, working in partnership with other funders including the HEI Funding Councils of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Technology Strategy Board and the research charities. In so doing, the Research Councils tension a number of research, training and knowledge transfer objectives, including: enabling the very best researchers to pursue innovative research ideas; nurturing new areas of research (particularly in the areas between traditional disciplines); sustaining the incremental progression of knowledge within established areas; stimulating collaborations and partnerships with end users, and maintaining a healthy UK research base with sufficient capacity, expertise and capability across the subject base and in critical areas of national importance. The balance between these goals is informed by expert opinion from the research community, business and government.

  19.  The Research Councils believe that potentially some of the most exciting research advances occur at the boundaries between disciplines. The UK's capability to undertake interdisciplinary research is dependent on the structure and organisation of the research base, and the availability of suitably skilled individuals with the knowledge and desire to pursue collaborative research. These are challenges for all partners in the research base—Government, universities, the Funding Councils and other funding bodies. For interdisciplinary research to flourish there is a need for those engaged in its support and delivery to think beyond traditional discipline based structures, given the cultural, organisational and communication barriers that these can impose. Research Councils have encouraged this through the establishment of actual and virtual centres and collaborations within and between universities. HEFCE encourages collaboration via its strategic development fund, and universities themselves are increasingly taking up the challenge eg the University of Manchester's Interdisciplinary Biocentre, which has been specifically created to promote interdisciplinary, challenge orientated bioscience and biotechnology—including training researchers to work across disciplinary interfaces.

  20.  Increasingly globalisation presents not only a challenge for UK business, but for the UK research sector. This challenge manifests itself in a number of areas: the need to train and develop the next cadre of UK researchers; the need to attract the brightest students and academics to study and work in the UK, and collaborate with our best research teams; the need to ensure that UK researchers continue to have access to cutting edge laboratories and facilities wherever they are located; and the need to develop the UK as a key knowledge hub in the global economy, with a reputation not only for world-class research but also a world leader at turning that knowledge into new products and services.

  21.  The Research Councils aim to provide university researchers with flexible means to pursue international collaboration with the best researchers across the globe and to encourage the mobility of researchers to and from the UK. This includes the provision of travel grants, networks and workshops grants, and top-up funding as well as co-funding for collaborative projects through existing research funding mechanisms. It is also important for postgraduates, postdocs and researchers at all stages of their careers to be able to pursue opportunities for international collaboration and the Research Councils will continue to invest in these schemes. This includes support for fellowships with specific provision for working overseas, exchange schemes, and co-funding the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Award Scheme (DHPA). This scheme brings outstanding students from India, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and the developing world to come and study for PhDs in top UK universities.

  22.  In terms of access to state of the art laboratory facilities and equipment, it is important to recognise that national capabilities are increasingly being replaced by international facilities. This reflects rapid advances in technology development which often drive more complex and expensive facilities which tend to be beyond the scope of any one country to develop. Research too, is being pursued to a greater degree on an international basis, reflecting the nature of global challenges such as climate change and the scale of major endeavours in areas such as particle physics. In this environment it is essential that the UK continues to take a long-term and strategic view of the facilities that UK researchers are likely to need access to and manage the investment of public funds accordingly.

Graduates appropriate for a high-skill economy

  23.  The role of the Research Councils is to:

    —  ensure that the best potential researchers are attracted into research careers;

    —  assist the universities to improve the quality of their research training and improve the employability of early stage researchers;

    —  increase the attractiveness of research careers by actively promoting improved career development and management of research staff in universities and fostering a culture of continuous enhancement; and

    —  enhance the international attractiveness of research training in UK HEIs.

  24.  In delivering this the Research Councils wish to encourage HEIs to embed transferable skills in the PhD thus raising value to employers, and improve career development for their research staff. This helps to address the employer needs for postgraduates with project management, team working skills, communication, and leadership capabilities. To support this aim the Research Councils run collaborative PhD studentship schemes many of which offer training in partnership with business. For example BBSRC supports the biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme and ESRC, the RDAs and the Scottish Executive fund the University of Cambridge to run courses for graduates on enterprise and entrepreneurship. The Research Councils also continue to encourage HEIs to use some of the money provided to implement the Roberts' Review on SET skills to provide business planning, enterprise, IP management and entrepreneurship skills training for postgraduates and postdocs.

Widening participation, contribution to social mobility

  25.  Universities have a key role in promoting diversity within the postgraduate student population and the research workforce and the Research Councils are committed to working with them to achieve this, by funding and promoting best practice initiatives, for example.

A much greater level of engagement with schools and engagement in society and democratic debate, and producing active citizens

  26.  The HE sector has a strong role to play in increasing opportunities for people of all ages and from all sectors of society to engage with science and research. Research Councils believe that public engagement activity helps people to be more aware of the opportunities open to them, and more empowered to take an informed part in the democratic process and the decisions affecting their lives. At the same time, activity of this kind encourages young people, their families, individuals and groups to become more aware of the contributions made to the nation's health, wealth and culture by research and the links between them. Such activity helps secure the supply of those wishing to become involved in higher education and research by enthusing and inspiring people of all ages through engagement with current developments in different subject areas, contemporary research and higher education opportunities.

  27.  Good quality public engagement should involve specialists listening to, developing their understanding of and interacting with non-specialists. The primary purpose should not be to generate approval or acceptance of the institution, nor to recruit students.

  28.  The Research Councils would urge the higher education sector to ensure that public engagement is part of their purpose, and to commit to developing this activity across all departments and incorporating public engagement training into staff/researcher development. The Research Councils are working with the sector to tackle some of the barriers to HEI staff participating in public engagement activities. A study co-funded by the Research Councils[2] identified that a research-driven culture—including pressure to publish, attract funding for and building careers on "hard research"—means that public engagement is not always a priority within HEIs.

  29.  In partnership with the UK funding councils and in association with the Wellcome Trust, Research Councils UK has launched an initiative, "Beacons for Public Engagement",[3] to address some of these issues by providing support for the recognition and coordination of public engagement activities within HEIs. There are a number of other initiatives led by the Research Councils which support the research community (within the HE sector and beyond) to undertake public engagement activity, and which the Beacons will complement. These include Researchers in Residence, National Science Week Awards, UK GRAD programme, public engagement grant schemes run by individual Research Councils, and public engagement training for researchers.


Is the current funding system fit for purpose? Is the purpose clear?

What are the principles on which university funding should be based?

  30.  The Research Councils strongly support the principle of the dual support funding system for research in UK universities. The implementation of the TRAC methodology and the full economic cost funding (FEC) model has brought greater transparency to the pricing and costing of university research and requires universities to recover, in aggregate, the full economic costs of their activities. As part of this model, the Research Councils have from September 2005 paid 80% of the FEC of the research they fund.

  31.  In line with the aspirations in the Government's Science and Innovation Investment Framework, Research Councils anticipate moving towards full sustainability early in the next decade, although this will require further increases in the Science Budget beyond 2007-08 if the current volume of research activity is to be maintained.

  32.  In terms of funding for innovation, the Research Councils support the HEIF as part of the Government's goal of raising UK investment in R&D to 2.5% of GDP by 2014, partly through strengthening links between the science, engineering and technology base, businesses and community interests. Research Councils also have an important role to play in the knowledge transfer and innovation agenda and are focusing on increasing their brokering activities and funding knowledge transfer as well as encouraging business and other user collaboration in the delivery of research. As such, the Councils wish to ensure that the significant funding available through HEIF is deployed to complement Councils activities.

Should research funding be based on selection of "quality"?

How should quality be defined and assessed?

How might this drive behaviour across the sector?

  33.  Each year the Research Councils invest around £2.3 billion in excellent research and training supporting the work of tens of thousands of researchers in universities and other research institutions across the UK. This funding gives the best researchers the resources, time and support to pursue their research ideas and helps to train talented graduates and postgraduates who will go on not just to careers in research, but also into business, finance, education and the public sector. The Research Councils fundamentally believe that the allocation of research funding should be based on quality and will continue to employ independent expert peer review for assessing proposals. This system is regarded as an international benchmark of excellence in research funding, and this provides a guarantee of the quality of UK research.

  34.  In terms of the allocation of QR funding the Research Councils believe that this too should continue to be made on the basis of quality. However, the Councils also believe that whilst having had a positive impact on the HE sector in the 1980s and 1990s the bureaucracy of the RAE has become counterproductive to the challenges facing the research base. As such, the Research Councils welcome the announcement of a new framework for research assessment and funding announced in the Pre-Budget Report (December 2006) and look forward to working with the Funding Councils in developing appropriate metrics that give sufficient encouragement and reward to multidisciplinary research, practice based research, knowledge transfer and economic development activities.

How can leading research universities reach internationally competitive levels of funding?

Should limited central-government funding be directed elsewhere?

  35.  The Research Councils have a national remit and adopt a UK-wide strategic view on research capability. All Councils' policy is to fund the highest rated proposals they receive, regardless of institution or geographical location.

How well do universities manage their finances, and what improvements, if any, need to be made?

  36.  The Research Councils undertake a programme of "Dipstick Testing" at universities in receipt of Council funds. This provides assurance to Research Council Chief Executives on the propriety and regularity of expenditure on research grants awarded to these universities. Following the implementation of FEC Dipstick Testing will also be used to examine expenditure in relation to studentships funded by the Research Councils.

  37.  The process is generally well-received by universities who view it as "light touch"" but helpful in terms of helping to identify weaknesses in research grant administration. Dipstick Testing has provided the Research Councils with a high level of assurance in respect of the propriety of research grant expenditure by universities. In the rare instances where areas of concern have been identified, Councils have worked with the research organisations concerned to develop agreed action plans to remedy any issues.


Is the current structure of the HE sector appropriate and sustainable for the future?

How well do structures and funding arrangements fit with "diversity of mission"?

Is the current structure and funding affecting growth of HE in FE and part-time study?

How important are HE in FE and flexible learning to the future of HE? Would this part of the sector grow faster under different structure and funding arrangements?

Can, and should, the Government be attempting to shape the structure of the sector?

Is the government's role one of planning, steering, or allowing the market to operate?

Should there be areas of government planning within HE—eg for strategic subjects?

What levers are available to the Government and how effective are they?

  38.  Concerns about the sustainability of the UK research base and about research provision have grown over recent years. The issues are wide ranging, and include rebuilding and maintaining the physical and scientific environment for conducting research (buildings, major equipment and facilities), the attractiveness or not of careers in research, maintaining international standards of excellence across the entire research base, and the funding structures and mechanisms for supporting research.

  39.  There is a need for all interested parties, including Research Councils, Funding Councils and the universities, to work in partnership to ensure that research capacity across the research base is maintained. This issue is being specifically addressed through the UK Research Base Funders Forum, who are initially focusing on the short term problems around health of disciplines and have developed of a set of metrics to help DfES, the Funding Councils, OSI and Research Councils create and implement evidence based policy on intervention in subjects giving cause for concern.

  40.  RCUK produced a summary of areas where there is a concern over the future supply of researchers and health of disciplines, together with information on grade profile and demographic analysis. This analysis reveals that the question of what constitutes a healthy research base cannot be answered simply: the answer is discipline dependent and not solely a function of numbers of staff or trends in student numbers. For example, there is universal agreement that the decline in numbers of full time staff in the physical sciences is of concern. However, there is also concern over the development, retention and recruitment of world class researchers in business and management, despite an overall increase in numbers of staff in these disciplines. Also, overall upward trends may mask shortages in key sub-disciplines, for example the biosciences appear healthy overall, but this masks gaps in whole animal physiology and some aspects of health services research.

  41.  The Research Councils are working with the Higher Education Funding bodies to identify where demand is likely to have an effect on the long-term health of certain research disciplines and to encourage the adoption of policies and support initiatives to enhance recruitment and retention where necessary.

  42.  Through the UK Research Base Funders' Forum, the Research Councils have been working closely with the Funding Councils over the past year to develop a range of metrics for monitoring the strength of research disciplines and sub-disciplines. This activity complements the work of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on strategically important and vulnerable subjects in Higher Education.

  43.  The Research Councils recognise the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for the best researchers. They are committed to the ideal that the UK must remain the best place to undertake research and research training. We have, for example, raised the profile of the EU Charter and Code for Researchers in the UK and developed strategies for its effective incorporation into UK practice whilst maintaining the momentum to further develop UK practice (eg through a new Code of Practice for Researchers). The Research Councils have also engaged with partners (ONS, HESA) to contribute to the OECD project to track the Careers of Doctoral Holders. This will deliver greater understanding of the distribution and roles of doctorate holders in the UK economy and enable comparisons with other countries.



  44.  It is a key aim of the Research Councils for the UK to produce internationally competitive postgraduates. The Research Councils collectively support 15,500 (mostly full-time) doctoral students of whom approximately 12% are from other EU member states. The Research Councils provide support for a limited number of non-UK students through sponsorship and operation of the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate awards and through project studentships driven by the needs of peer-reviewed research projects. The Councils aim to assist the universities to improve the quality of UK doctoral programmes and to enhance the international attractiveness of UK research training noting that the HE sector is already an attractive destination for non-UK doctoral students. Of 58,000 full time doctoral students in 2004-05 48% are non-UK and 14% are from other EU member states—in addition of 54,000 part-time doctoral students 33% are non-UK and 11% are from other EU member states.[4]

  45.  The Research Councils' interest in the Bologna Process prior to the Berlin ministerial summit in 2003 focused mainly on the impact of the developing two cycles of HE and in particular the developing 2-year Masters model in other EU member states. The Research Councils also had concerns that difficulties could emerge for the UK if the second cycle came to be adopted as a normal entry route to doctoral studies. The Councils' interest has extended significantly since the Berlin ministerial summit identified research as an integral part of European HE and the doctoral level was incorporated as a third cycle within the Bologna Process. The Research Councils note that, although doctoral candidates in the UK are students, they observe the appropriateness of the often-used description of the doctoral cycle as the third level of education and the first stage of a research career.

  46.  The Research Councils have, through the RCUK Research Careers and Diversity Unit, taken steps to engage fully with the development of the doctoral cycle of Bologna. In particular participating alongside representatives of the HE sector in agreeing the 10 Salzburg principles as the official outcomes of the Doctoral Programmes Projects run by the European Universities Association (EUA).[5] These outcomes were endorsed by the Bergen ministerial summit in 2005. The Research Councils have additionally incorporated Bologna discussions into postgraduate policy events run by the RCUK-funded UKGRAD[6] programme such as Profiting from Postgraduate Talent[7] in September 2005 and 2006.

  47.  RCUK has continued its involvement with the Bologna Process following the mandate from ministers to the EUA to further develop the basic principles for doctoral qualifications. In doing this RCUK has co-operated strongly with the UK Higher Education Sector Europe Unit with the overall objective of maintaining the position of the UK as an attractive destination for doctoral studies and to continue to ensure the high quality of its doctoral graduates. RCUK assisted the Europe Unit in producing a co-ordinated view from the UK HE sector on the doctoral cycle A key outcome of that collaboration was publication by the Europe Unit of a briefing note outlining the UK position and highlighting examples of UK good practice with regard to 10 key areas of doctoral education.[8]

  48.  RCUK was represented at the official Bologna Process seminar on Doctoral Programmes in Europe (Nice: Dec 2006). The draft conclusions of this seminar were broadly supported by UK delegates who had contributed to all debates and who were able to influence the thrust of the final draft document. Since the seminar UK delegates have contributed views to the EUA which will finalise the document for presentation to ministers at the London ministerial summit.

  49.  The Research Councils perceive that the Bologna Process has resulted in increased attention being given to the Masters cycle. Whereas the advantages of a common approach to degree structures in Europe are clear, the Councils have been concerned that a momentum could develop leading to a Masters degree becoming a necessary step en route to a PhD. This would have major funding implications if it were expected that this should become the norm in the UK—not least because of the traditional division of responsibility for funding mechanisms for undergraduate and postgraduate HE.

The agenda for discussion at the 2007 meeting in London—clarifying the UK position

  50.  The Research Councils are supportive of the draft outcomes from the Nice Bologna Process Seminar. In particular they wish to:

    —  Stress the importance of the diversity of purpose, duration and delivery of doctoral education in Europe.

    —  Encourage the continued development of transferable skills within doctoral training (an area where the UK has significant experience to share with other countries).

    —  Ensure the importance of institutional autonomy in defining entry requirements—particularly in relation to Masters degrees and entry to doctoral programmes.

    —  Continue to emphasise learning outcomes from doctoral programmes and avoid rigid stipulations about the duration of study.

The implications of a three-phase structure of higher education awards for to one-year Masters and short undergraduate courses (HNCs, HNDs, and Foundation Degrees)

  51.  The Research Councils strongly support the need for flexibility in progression to doctoral level. The Councils recognise that in certain disciplines doctoral students have often already obtained a Masters qualification (either stand-alone or as an integrated undergraduate degree) whereas in other disciplines there is no tradition of a Masters stage. They note that the pattern of progression for doctoral students supported by the Research Councils differs markedly by discipline—illustrated in the following table:

Research Council
Typical/dominant Higher Education Path

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Dominant model is:
3-yr Bachelor's degree + 1-yr Masters + 3-yr PhD
Life sciences (BBSRC)
The developing model is predominantly
3-yr Bachelor's degree + 4-yr PhD (up from 3 since 2004)
Environmental and Medical sciences
(NERC and MRC)
Variable by HEI/discipline
(MRC and NERC allow flexibility of length at HEI discretion leading to longer than 3 year average PhD)
Engineering and Physical Sciences
Dominant model is:
4-yr 1st integrated Bachelor's/master's degree + 3-4 year PhD (PPARC is considering a preferred 4-year PhD; EPSRC has 4- year Engineering Doctorate and flexibility in PhD through DTAs)

  52.  It is clear from this that any move to require the intercalation of a Masters degree between the undergraduate and postgraduate stages would lead to increased cost with no clear system-wide benefit in terms of the training of future researchers. If a 2-year Masters stage were to become the norm the value would be even less clear.

  53.  The Research Councils would have grave concerns if a Masters qualification became an eligibility requirement to undertake a PhD. The Councils note a potential problem for the standing of UK doctorates if the entry level were perceived to be lower (Bachelors) compared to the rest of Europe (Masters). They also wish to alert the Committee to the potential impact on mobility within the EHEA if students could not progress directly from a UK Bachelor's degree to doctoral studies in other European countries.

  54.  The Research Councils therefore support the draft recommendation of the Nice Seminar that "The Bologna commitment that the second cycle gives access to the third cycle should be maintained, but access to the third cycle should not be restricted to this route."

Awareness and engagement in the Bologna Process within HEIs

  55.  The Research Councils have observed that since the Berlin ministerial conference in 2003 the UK HE sector has engaged more fully with the issues impacting on doctoral education. In particular RCUK has engaged with the UK Higher Education Europe Unit and has welcomed the level of awareness that it has achieved through its briefings. RCUK has also participated alongside representatives of the sector in those Bologna Process seminars with a focus on doctoral education and has contributed directly to the formulation of particular outcomes. RCUK was fully supportive of the outcomes of the EUA "Doctoral Programmes Project" giving rise to the "10 Salzburg Principles" presented to and adopted by the Bergen summit and the draft outcomes of the Nice Doctoral Programmes Seminar[9] which will form input to the London summit.

Opportunities to enhance the mobility of students from the UK

  56.  Although mobility in itself is not a responsibility of the Research Councils, RCUK is aware of the benefits that can accrue from researchers who have experienced education and research in other countries. RCUK is nevertheless alert to the potential impact on mobility within the EHEA if students could not progress directly from a UK Bachelor's degree to doctoral studies in other European countries.

The possible implementation of a European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and a focus on learning outcomes and competencies

Quality Assurance systems in HE (teaching and research): the compatibility of UK proposals and Bologna

  57.  The Research Councils do not have responsibility for accreditation of degrees or QA issues in UK HE but have a strong interest in the maintenance of high quality education and research in a strong autonomous HE sector. The Councils perceive flexibility to be a strength of UK HE and do not support a single model of doctoral training in the UK—for example the Engineering Doctorate contains significant taught and formally industrially- relevant components and is available in addition to the PhD. A number of new models have been developed in recent years in the UK including Professional Doctorates, the New Route PhD and within the PhD itself there is a trend towards greater structure and inclusion of taught components. The HE sector is not in favour of the introduction of credit at doctoral level and supports the principles of flexibility and institutional autonomy.

  58.  The Research Councils participated fully in the development of the QAA Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes in the UK and would anticipate taking an interest in any relevant development at the European level.

  59.  RCUK, through its Research Careers and Diversity Unit, represents the UK on the Steering Group for Human Resources and Mobility supported by DG Research. The SGHRM advised the European Commission on the development of the European Code and Charter for researchers and is monitoring its implementation.

Degree classification reform in light of Bologna

The broader impact of Bologna across Europe: a more standardised Europe and the consequences for the UK's position in the global market for HE (Bologna and the second phase of the Prime Ministers Initiative for International Education (PMI 2))

  60.  Moves towards a strong European University sector able to attract excellent candidates to its universities are congruent with the objectives of government for the UK HE sector and are supported by common degree structures. The Research Councils' objectives in relation to doctoral education sit within this framework. The Councils are concerned that moves to a common degree system should not compromise the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for the best potential researchers from Europe and overseas.

  61.  In some European countries PhD candidates may have employee status. In contrast those supported by the Research Councils are typically students. The UK's National Postgraduate Committee sees considerable benefits in this, notably exemption from income tax and National Insurance. The UK HE sector believes it is important that doctoral candidates are treated as professionals with access to skills training and development (including Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and that their status is a matter for each country to decide.

December 2006

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2   "Survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers", Royal Society, RCUK and Wellcome Trust, June 2006, available at under "Our Work/Engaging with the public". Back

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4   HESA Student Statistics 2004-05. Back

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9   Note that the UK delegation at the Nice Bologna Process seminar on Doctoral Programmes in Europe was second only in size to the French delegation. Back

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Prepared 9 August 2007