Arts and Humanities Research Council cuts funded PhDs by quarter

UK funder will support fewer PhD studentships as cost pressures from reduced funding and higher doctoral stipends bite

September 20, 2023
Person chopping wood with axe

The UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is to cut the number of PhD students it funds by a quarter, from 425 to 300 a year.

Unveiling major changes to its doctoral training provision on 20 September, the funder said it will reduce the number of students supported via doctoral training partnerships (DTPs) – which represent 85 per cent of its postgraduate research portfolio – to enable “strategic investment” in other areas.

These include extra resources to maintain PhD entry levels in Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships – in which museums, libraries and other non-university organisations work with universities to support about 50 doctoral students a year – and the reintroduction of Centres for Doctoral Training, in which university consortia bid for doctoral funding relating to either the creative economy or environmental issues.

Under the plans, the number of PhDs funded by Britain’s smallest research council, which had a budget of £82 million this year, will fall to 300 per year by 2029-30.

Announcing the changes, the council’s executive chair, Christopher Smith, said the organisation’s new 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,” said Professor Smith, noting that it is “true that the costs of PhDs are going up and our funding does not stretch as far as it used to”.

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

The cuts follow a substantial reduction in the AHRC’s operating budget this year, mainly caused by the loss of about £9 million related to non-core income streams such as the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the Strategic Priorities Fund and the Fund for International Collaboration.

By 2024-25, it will receive only about £3.8 million from these cross-UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) strategic programmes, compared with £20.5 million in 2022-23, with its overall budget down from £93 million to £84 million, according to its 2022-25 strategic delivery plan.

The AHRC will also need to fund a higher PhD stipend that was raised by 5 per cent to £18,622 for 2023-24, following a 10 per cent increase by UKRI in 2022-23.

Professor Smith said the changes had been “designed with future sustainability, both for AHRC and the students and institutions we support, in mind”, and following a report published in February, which highlighted “challenges to our current approach, such as an inequality of participation and lack of diversity”.

On the reduction in support for DTPs, he added that “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”.

“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,” added Professor Smith, who said the “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,” he said.

Under the plans, DTPs will also be funded using a “formula approach to allocate funding to DTPs rather than a competition” and “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 AHRC said.

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