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The DTC Effect: ESRC Doctoral Training Centres and the UK Social Science Doctoral Training Landscape

Research output: Book/Report/ProceedingsOther report

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Publication date2018
Place of PublicationLiverpool
PublisherLiverpool Hope University Press
Number of pages50
ISBN (Print)9781898749189
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Observers of policy have long been aware that policies are solutions to a problem, but they are rarely perfectly formed and often have unexpected consequences. As this report shows, this is also the case with the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) initiative, launched in 2009. Of particular note is that the timing of this policy - during a tight fiscal climate - meant that the initial intentions and subsequent implementation varied considerably in terms of scale.

On paper, DTCs had the potential to offer a number of benefits, such as fostering doctoral and academic collaboration across academic and institutional boundaries, improving the quality of doctoral training through innovative training models, and developing a viable, interdisciplinary cadre of social scientists. They are not, however, without their challenges: literature preceding this study had already highlighted that, among other things, they were difficult to establish and run, and excluded a significant proportion of universities - and potentially, poorer students - from accessing ESRC doctoral funding.

The rationale for investigating this policy was firstly underpinned by a curiosity as to how the introduction of DTCs might have broader impact across the sector. The literature on DTCs to date tends to take the view from those universities inside the funding circle, and we know little about the experiences of other universities or, crucially, doctoral students. The ESRC only funds around 12% of all social science doctorates in the UK at any given time, and there might be a question as to how much impact they have on the sector as a whole. They are, though, the UK’s most visible domestic social science funder, and we were interested to explore the extent to which the policy may have been felt by institutions excluded from ESRC doctoral funding as much as to gain further insights into life within the DTC community.

The creation of the DTCs was part of a process of growing formalisation, by the ESRC, of what social science doctoral research training should look like, but at the same time it also represented a rearrangement in the ways that doctoral education in the UK was organised, delivered, and by whom. From a broader perspective, ESRC DTCs are a relatively small but important piece of a narrative of increasing external governance of research in the UK, and DTCs in themselves were an imitation of another Research Council’s doctoral training model that has been widely copied. DTCs are actually already being phased out, having been replaced by (but still currently overlapping with) a network of mostly much larger Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs).

This study therefore seeks to contribute to the story of the ESRC DTC policy and its place in doctoral funding in the UK social sciences more generally. It draws on national data on doctoral completions and student populations, as well as 60 interviews: 30 with senior academics or managerial staff responsible for PGR provision and/or research strategy, and 30 with social science doctoral students. Participants were drawn from across the sector, i.e. from within and outside the ESRC ‘fold’. The interviews took place over 12 months, starting in May 2016. This meant that, incidentally, they coincided with the period when the bids for the new DTPs were being submitted, awarded, and subsequently established.