The United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) may fund as many as 1,000 fewer PhDs this year, ScienceInsider reports—reducing the 2,902 new doctoral students it funded in the 2010-11 academic year to just 1,900. While this news represents a "worst-case scenario," a more conservative estimate would still entail a 20 percent drop in funded PhDs over the next 5 years, Atti Emecz, EPSRC's director for communications, information and strategy, told ScienceInsider. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, another of the UK’s seven Research Councils, is also likely to see a reduction in funding for PhDs.
One reason for the drop is the EPSRC's decision to stop funding students by allowing them to be included in research project proposals. This had become an increasingly popular way to fund PhD students in the United Kingdom, but it drew from the same pot of money that supported postdocs, and "we saw a risk that we would be funding students at the expense of postdoctoral research assistants,” Emecz said. “That seems counterproductive to us."
Additionally, the research council is shifting towards the funding of centers for doctoral training (CDTs) that provide 4-year, rather than 3-year, PhDs, as a way of emphasizing quality over quantity. But longer programs are more expensive, and thus limit the number of students the EPSRC can fund.
Lesley Cohen, director of postgraduate studies for physics at Imperial College London, worries that this may not be the best move right now. "They are twice as expensive," she told ScienceInsider. Furthermore, the drop in funding will likely affect the UK’s ability to recruit students from around Europe, she said, as there are now restrictions regarding the percentage of the funding that can go towards non-UK students. "It's educating British students for science in Britain rather than educating the best young brains in Europe," Cohen said.