The future for arts and humanities postgraduates

Abstract colourful painting.

Outlining the principles for our next phase of support for doctoral provision, informed by sector engagement and working with the Collective Talent Fund.

We are in a different world from when I started my doctorate in 1988 with a grant from the British Academy. The adoption of a ‘1+3’ model was a hugely significant change; Roberts funding transformed expectations around skills. Doctoral training partnerships were intended to create a community of researchers. The numbers of PhD students have risen and the proportion entering the academic profession has fallen, and not just in the UK.

The creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 25 years ago this autumn set us on a path to a very different blend of strategic, responsive mode and training funding, but we carried over significant inherited patterns of funding.

The creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has encouraged a continuing conversation about the evolution of postgraduate funding, and as we come to the end of this round of doctoral training partnerships, it is time for AHRC too to look at this area. In mid-2021, AHRC commissioned Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC)/Vitae to undertake an engagement exercise to help develop our thinking around the future of doctoral provision in the arts and humanities. The main output of this exercise was to produce a report for AHRC which we have now published on our website.

I am hugely grateful to everyone who worked and contributed to this important report. It offers a rich and powerful account of the opportunities we have, but it also outlines the challenges we face as a funder.

The importance of AHRC doctoral training in the postgraduate research landscape

We recognise that AHRC within UKRI must continue to take a leadership role for arts and humanities doctoral training, demonstrating a strong vision and purpose for our next phase of support.

AHRC-funded doctoral training is universally perceived to:

  • enhance the reputation of higher education institutions (HEIs) to attract postgraduate researchers and academic staff
  • increase overall research capacity and improve the training and development offer
  • foster relationships into deeper and wider-ranging research collaborations

We also know that UKRI is recognised as setting the standard for our provision, and this is one of the reasons why UKRI announced in May last year that we will be transitioning to working in a more collective manner across our £2 billion of talent initiatives covering studentships and fellowships.

Collective working in the talent portfolio will help simplify and harmonise our talent offers and make it easier to work across disciplines and across the research and innovation sector, including the private, public and third sectors while still retaining a strong place for disciplinary training.

We will take the strengths of our doctoral training provision into the Collective Talent Fund, but we also have the opportunity to embed lessons from the Grant and Tickell reviews in reducing administrative burdens and learning from each other.

Making choices

This context demonstrates why our future doctoral provision plans are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish a sustainable and balanced portfolio for AHRC which directly addresses the challenges from the CRAC/Vitae report.

The costs of PhDs are increasing. Our funding does not stretch as far as it used to.

The report outlines some critical weaknesses within our current model, particularly around inequality of participation and insufficient diversity within AHRC postgraduate researcher cohorts. We also know of critical skill shortages within parts of the sector which require focus and prioritisation. There is an ambition to address the skills need in the sector and the changing nature of the PhD which cannot be met through our current approach.

So our planning will require us to diversify our offer and also focus on precise goals to increase the impact of limited funding.

Re-balancing our portfolio

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At AHRC, we spend a significantly and unsustainably higher proportion of our core funds on postgraduate research than any other research council.  And yet we fund a very small proportion of the PhDs in arts and humanities.

Despite a clear commitment for many years to balance our portfolio across talent, responsive and strategic modes, a static core research budget has made this increasingly difficult. As the costs of research rise and the ambitions of a diverse sector develop, the pressures have increased. Research Excellence Framework 2021 showed the strength of arts and humanities is deep and broad, and we have to reflect that diversity across our portfolio.

We have therefore announced our intent to strengthen our responsive mode offer to enable career development and to ensure greater inclusivity and diversity in our funding. Now we must consider our portfolio as a whole and ensure we are providing the best funding support to the arts and humanities sector to deliver outstanding research. This is an opportunity for AHRC to bring its portfolio together sustainably and create the scalable solutions which will deliver impact.

It is also the case that proportionately more arts and humanities funding is delivered through quality-related research than for any other council. Across our research portfolio, the sector has autonomy to deliver appropriate solutions. It is clear that, given the small proportion of PhDs we fund, the sector has numerous alternative ways of supporting a vibrant postgraduate population. Our responsibility has to be to target our limited funds at the areas of greatest need.

Principles for the future of doctoral provision

Informed by the engagement with the sector through the CRAC/Vitae report, the principles we will hold to as we design and deliver future doctoral provision are as follows:

  • widening opportunities and welcoming innovative and diverse routes to doctoral training​
  • enabling collaborative learning and peer support
  • enabling professional development and expanded skills capacity for the UK’s future workforce
  • reducing bureaucracy
  • supporting and advocating for arts and humanities doctoral students within UKRI’s Collective Talent​Fund to deliver doctoral training in accordance with the AHRC vision​

This will help us to ensure we can deliver a rebalanced PhD portfolio which is affordable, long term and designed to address skills shortages​.

It will take us some time, working in conjunction with the Collective Talent Fund, to design and develop those schemes, but we will:

  • continue our commitment to collaborative doctoral partnerships (CDP), which have been highly successful in enabling collaborative learning within and beyond HEIs, and we look forward to announcing CDP 4 awards in the spring
  • retain cohort-models of delivering studentships within HEIs, but reintroduce support for centres of doctoral training which will deliver strategic or challenge-led doctoral opportunities, alongside doctoral training partnerships. This means the number of students we fund through doctoral training partnerships will reduce, but they will remain a core part of our offer

The target launch of our schemes for students commencing in October 2026 will be in late autumn 2023. We aim to give you more information on when we expect our schemes to launch over the summer.

Central to our principles is how we work within UKRI on the Collective Talent Fund. This is a critical opportunity to simplify our approaches, provide a diverse portfolio of opportunities and build on our successful track record of collaboration.

Change is difficult and nowhere more so than in this area where decisions we make now hold for years to come and affect future generations. But delaying change causes its own problems. The opportunities raised from the sector in the report demand a readjustment; as funded postgraduate numbers fall, we must be more focused in our expenditure. The sector has made clear the need for change. We now need to produce a solution which maximises the autonomy that universities have, offers long term and predictable funding, supports the real breadth of disciplines in our portfolio, and tackles real issues of skills and access.

I believe we can design a better postgraduate research funding package, and one that will last, and one which answers the views we have heard and is better embedded in our overall funding. This is a defining moment for AHRC and for our community of research and practice.

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