Update on AHRC future doctoral provision

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The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will introduce major changes to its doctoral provision later this year.

As outlined in a blog in February 2023, these changes are designed to establish a sustainable and balanced portfolio for AHRC and continue investment in arts and humanities research talent at the doctoral stage.

Taken as a whole, the changes address challenges highlighted in the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC)/Vitae report on doctoral training in the arts and humanities and build on the strengths of our approach that it highlighted.

Challenges identified in the report include how to:

  • achieve equity of access to doctoral education without ‘detriment to excellence’
  • provide an individual, person-centred experience within a structured, cohort-based programme of study
  • balance the need for pure or fundamental research with the drive to demonstrate impact or innovation

We have conducted comprehensive engagement with our communities on the changes, which will apply to new schemes launching in November and starting in October 2026.

The changes

The changes include maintaining the same number of studentships for Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships (CDPs), which will deliver a real term increase in funding.

Another change will be reintroducing Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) with a specific research focus. This will allow us to generate the most impact by targeting funding against evidence-based skills shortages that address the greatest challenges facing our society and communities today.

The first two research themes will be CDTs for the creative economy and CDTs in the arts and humanities for a healthy planet, people and place. Information on the funding opportunity is now available, and it will open for applications by the end of November.

Strategic investments

We are also reducing the number of students in Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) we support to enable the above increased investment in strategic investments that fill specific sector-related gaps and to invest in collaborative partnerships.

We are determined to see our funding focused on improving representation and building a more diverse arts and humanities ecosystem.

A formula-based approach

A further change will be the use of a formula approach to allocate funding to DTPs rather than a competition. This will be designed to enable regional distribution, and will reduce the administrative burden on applicants in line with the recommendations of the Tickell review.

This means higher education institutions (HEIs) will no longer need to apply for DTPs. Funded HEIs will be informed in 2024, following light touch assurance to ensure a high quality doctoral training environment.

The changes are in line with UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) ambition to deliver a modern and agile research and innovation system in the UK that provides everyone with the opportunity to contribute, enriching lives locally, nationally and globally.

Encouraging small specialist institutions

As a result of the changes, AHRC expects to fund one quarter fewer PhD students, reducing from 425 to around 300 new studentships per year by 2029 to 2030.

The changes do not constitute a significant shift in UKRI’s overall studentship numbers and AHRC will remain the highest proportionate spender on postgraduate research in UKRI.

We will continue to engage with our communities about the changes in the coming months.

There are no restrictions on HEIs participating in more than one scheme, and we are particularly encouraging small specialist institutions to lead or participate in our new CDTs.

Future sustainability

AHRC Executive Chair Professor Christopher Smith said:

These changes are designed with future sustainability, both for AHRC and the students and institutions we support, in mind.

The CRAC/Vitae report highlight challenges to our current approach, such as an inequality of participation and lack of diversity. It is also true that the costs of PhDs are going up and our funding does not stretch as far as it used to.

Doctoral Training Partnerships currently represent 85% of our postgraduate research portfolio.

We cannot maintain it at this level when there is a need to ensure that we address skills gaps in sectors that are key to the economy and society, and further diversity across the ecosystem through our investments.

This approach will mean that we support fewer studentships; we fully appreciate that this will be a major change for many institutions, and it is not a decision that we have taken lightly.

However, we believe that our new approach will, crucially, ensure that our doctoral training provision is sustainable, scalable and equitable.

AHRC currently funds under 15% of the PhDs in arts and humanities in UK universities, and it is vital that our investment is targeted and strategic.

AHRC doctoral provision is being structured to be in line with core strengths of the arts and humanities, enable a focus on skills that is responsive to high growth sectors, and the demands of the workforce of the future.

AHRC will remain the UK’s largest strategic funder of postgraduate research in the arts and humanities, and also continue to have the highest proportionate spend on postgraduate research of UKRI’s councils.

We are committed to ensuring that we provide the very best support that we can for researchers across the ecosystem; this is the profound commitment that has driven these changes, and everything we do.

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