The call for input on UKRI’s New Deal for PGR presents a welcome opportunity to highlight the key challenges and opportunities associated with postgraduate research routes, funding and models. 

The GuildHE research consortium currently represents 30 smaller and specailist universities and colleges institutions, spread geographically, and present in rural and coastal areas as well as more metropolitan locations. They provide research opportunities in a variety of specialisms, such as arts, drama, agriculture, veterinary sciences, hospitality, osteopathy, sports sciences and more. They also have a higher proportion of professional doctorate students and practice researchers. Engagement with such students can develop more effectiveness and bespoke measures of rigour, originality and significance for these kinds of alternative routes.

These institutions provide unique models of entry and exit for postgraduate research studies. In these providers, the profile of a PhD candidate does not reflect the rest of the UK Higher Education sector. Here, the postgraduate students are less likely to be funded from research councils and more likely to be part time, mature and female. Many students are also staff at the institution, or at similar organisations in the field. Many are pursuing research after a career in industry or in public services.

Currently, institutions that are small and specialists find the current funding structures to support postgraduate research studies challenging to engage with. We hope that the new deal will take into account the full diversity of the sector and recognise the structural challenges associated with establishing, maintaining and developing the research offer at such institutions. For example, we argue that Doctoral Training Partnerships should be designed to make opportunities more proportionate to the size of institutions and therefore more accessible, encouraging the smaller ones to take part in and grow their PGR offer, and incentivising larger institutions to create partnerships with smaller and developing institutions.

Small and specialist providers are in close and reciprocal relationships to their communities and the industry sectors to which they are aligned. Therefore they offer PGRS a broad spectrum of research opportunities, including professional doctorates, applied research, and practice research, which may be attractive to students looking for alternatives to the traditional PhD pathway. Alternative structures have benefitted institutions of this type in the past. One model could be embedding PhD students in local communities and creative practice communities, with funding working in a similar way to Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDAs). 

In evaluating routes in, through, and out, considerations should be made of what impact different models could have for marginalised groups. The GuildHE report on Lived Experiences of Ethnic Minority PGRs highlight a number of systemic challenges that prevent ethnic minority candidates from not just accessing PGR study, but their difference in experience during the study period. Students highlighted the lack of representation in the student body, academic staff and curricula. They shared a lack of openness and fairness in formal and informal opportunities available to them. Students also felt that more could be done to facilitate their ability to establish connections with academia and industry who understand their lived experience.

We are pleased to engage with UKRI on the New Deal, and hope it establishes connections to this unique group of postgraduate students, and with research environments that represent pockets of research excellence outside of the ‘usual suspects’ of research and innovation.