Universities will have more flexibility in setting Ph.D. stipends--and students could get an extra year to complete their Ph.D.--if the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) implements a new policy it is considering. But under the proposal, the total number of studentships will be reduced, probably by about 10%.

Under the current quota system, departments are awarded a number of studentships based on their success at winning EPSRC project funding. Each is worth £10,000 per year, and the cash is used to pay the student a fixed stipend, the university a fixed fee, and to make a contribution toward lab consumables. But in the proposal, the EPSRC, which is the United Kingdom's largest single source of postgraduate funding, claims that the current system lacks flexibility. "The present arrangements are essentially 3 years, full-time, fixed stipend--or nothing," say the authors.

Instead, EPSRC wants to shift decision-making closer to the bench. "The best people to judge the appropriate level of stipend and time [to complete a Ph.D.] are the supervisor and the university," says David Clark, director of engineering and science at EPSRC, who heads the proposal consultation.

To accomplish that goal, the EPSRC plans to replace the quota system with a single Doctoral Training Account for each department. Every year, the EPSRC would estimate the number of students enrolled in each department and deposit approximately £11,000 to the account for each student, an increase of 10% over the quota system allowance. But in contrast to the quota system, the department is free to decide how to divide this money between the stipend, the fee, and incidental expenses. There is one limitation: The proposal sets a minimum stipend that "certainly won't be lower than the current stipend plus inflation," according to Clark. In special circumstances, supervisors would also be allowed to fund a student for up to one extra year.

The proposal, expected to be agreed to by the council at its meeting on 21 June and commence October 2001, also lets departments respond to student supply and demand. "Rather than having to fill a fixed number of studentships in any year, a university could trade off a year of lean demand against a year with buoyant demand," says the EPSRC. In recent years between 8% and 14% of studentships have not been filled, so allowing universities to carry over funding would ease the situation. The plan is to "leave the university to trade off locally according to the nature of the project or demand for students," explains Clark.

The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) welcomes the proposal, which "recognises the needs of postgraduate students and is being quite realistic about how to target funding," according to General Secretary Jeremy Hoad. And the extra year appeals to students. "In some research groups it's common to take up to 4 years," says Ben Sheridan, a final-year Ph.D. condensed matter physicist at the Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Liverpool, who is on track to finish in 3 years. "It will take away a lot of the stress." James Windmill, a second-year EPSRC-funded Ph.D. physicist at the University of Plymouth, agrees. "Everyone I know is not running to timetable," he says, adding that he thinks easing up on the time will lead to a higher percentage of students finishing successfully.

Others are not so sure. "One always welcomes the idea of flexibility," says Professor Brian Johnson, a supervisor in the University of Cambridge's department of chemistry, but he is concerned that people might take advantage of the system. He does admit he "might be more tolerant in future," despite being a rigorous supervisor whose students nearly always finish in 3 years.

Being able to offer higher stipends will give lower profile fields more clout in attracting students, says Sheridan: "It's difficult for centres such as I'm in to attract people, because they get creamed off into the trendier areas." Johnson concurs, but he isn't sure that's a good thing. He is worried that it might benefit weaker rather than stronger departments, putting them in a position to lure students away from the big hitters.

The proposal may also create uncomfortable salary inequities within departments. When Windmill started his Ph.D., the EPSRC stipend had recently been increased, but university-funded studentships had not yet caught up. "There was a lot of moaning and complaining about the fact that EPSRC-funded students were getting more money," he says. Johnson agrees: "I think it will cause inequalities."

One thing is for sure: If the proposal is adopted, there won't be as many studentships to go around. "There's no way there's going to be a large injection of cash," says Hoad, so the scheme will have to be paid for out of existing finance. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that there will be about 10% fewer Doctoral Training Accounts than quota studentships. And of course, if there is a general move toward 4-year Ph.D.s, this will also cut down on the number of studentships available, although Clark says, "we hope going beyond 3 years will still be the exception."

That might not be a big problem if current trends hold. "The number of applicants in all subjects is on a rapid decline," says Johnson. "The idea of doing a Ph.D. is now much less attractive."