Postgraduate Researchers at the Heart of Research & Development

  • Research Culture

Submission to the Autumn Spending Review 2021

In September 2021 the UK Council for Graduate Education submitted a representation to the Treasury’s Autumn Budget / Spending Review. The submission allowed us to comment upon existing and proposed government policy and to suggest new policy ideas to be considered in the upcoming Budget / Spending Review.

Our submission is given in full below.

Submission Summary

We welcome the Government’s commitment to reach 2.4% of GDP expenditure on R&D by 2027/28 and the investment in the research workforce this entails. Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) are a top priority for this investment, not only because they are the future of UK research, but because:

  • PGRs contribute to R&D expenditure during their period of study.
  • PGRs are the engine’ of academic research, generating the data, evidence and innovative methodologies that underpin the UK’s ambition to be a scientific superpower’.
  • PGRs leverage investment from other R&D sectors, including charities and industry partners who see doctoral research as a cost-effective means to deliver their research objectives.
  • Undertaking doctoral-level study develops the PGRs as well as their fields of study, contributing highly-skilled workers in sectors beyond UK academia and, by part-time routes, developing existing staff for R&D leadership roles.
  • PGR is a major draw of International talent to the UK.

The UK Government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy acknowledges that to meet its R&D targets, 150,000 new research roles will need to be found by 2030. We applaud its acknowledgement that research careers must therefore be made more accessible and attractive to PGRs and that this should be delivered through a New Deal for Postgraduate Research Students”. More should be done to ensure that: admissions protocols and terms and conditions for PGRs replicate employment provisions more equitably and consistently, and models of delivery are flexible and PGR-centred.

UKRI doctoral funding applies to a minority (20–25%) of the Postgraduate Researcher (PGR) population in the UK and is mainly delivered within cohort-based doctoral programmes. It is imperative that the New Deal for Postgraduate Research Students” considers the ramifications it may have for the diversity and reach of the entirety of the UK’s wider doctoral provision.

Increasing the R&D workforce will require a commensurate growth in the recruitment of PGRs. This will also require expansion of a highly skilled academic supervisory base and relevant infrastructure. Currently, the capacity and the true cost of supervision across UK HEIs is unclear due to wide variations in institutional practice. Whilst there is some scope to increase capacity by engaging broadly across the HEI sector and making greater use of industry-based expertise, consistent work-loading models will be required to both optimise growth decisions and ensure targets are sustainable and equitable.

HEIs are well placed to recruit PGRs both from international markets and, increasingly, from under-represented UK-domiciled groups. We welcome recent initiatives to support these aspects of recruitment, such as making 30% of UKRI doctoral studentships available to non-UK domiciled PGRs and providing an £8 million joint fund from Research England and the Office for Students to promote Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic participation in postgraduate research. However, more can be done to promote PGR recruitment in these areas: the current Quality-Related Research Degree Funding (QR RDP) model in England disincentivises overseas recruitment, and should be brought into line with the UKRI position, and measures should be devised to recognise and reward positive and inclusive PGR research cultures — the Research Excellence Framework (REF) profiles currently used to scale core funding are poor proxies for the quality of PGR provision.

Contribution of Postgraduate Researchers to GDP

Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) make a significant contribution to GDP expenditure on R&D during their period of study. They are classified as Category D” R&D personnel by the Frascati manual (p.266), irrespective of their employment or funding status:

5.22 […] It is also possible that doctoral students who do not receive funding are nonetheless included in R&D personnel totals as external R&D personnel. 
OECD (2015), Frascati Manual 2015: p.158

Increased Government investment in doctoral research is therefore not only an investment in the future pipeline of research and development, it is also an immediate contribution to R&D expenditure.1

Public investment in doctoral research through UKRI amounts to over ~£660 million per year. ~£400 million through studentships, and Research England distributes a further ~£260 million through Quality-Related Research Degree Supervision Funding (QR RDP). UKRI’s total contribution to the UK Government Expenditure on R&D was £5,024 million in 2019. It is therefore estimated that doctoral training amounts ~13% of UKRI’s contribution to R&D expenditure.

The Scottish Funding Council invested £36 million in doctoral research through its Research Excellence Grant in 2020/21. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales invested £6.5 million, and the Northern Ireland Government invested £9.9 million in the same period. The combined total UK Government-sponsored investment in doctoral research is, therefore, ~£712 million.

If PGRs are to make an equivalent contribution to a 2.4% of GDP R&D expenditure as they do at the current ~1.74% level, UK Government investment in doctoral research must grow by at least 27.5% to ~£907 million by 2027/28.

Income from PGR tuition fees exceeds UK Government investment in doctoral education and training, at a total of ~£745m in 2019/20.2 67% of tuition fee income at PGR level comes from Non-EU domiciled candidates.3

Income for general research studentships from charities amounted to £27m in 2019/20, which is an indication of the ways in which doctoral research attracts investment from across the R&D sectors. (The equivalent investment in research studentships from industry is not publicly available).

The Government is urged to recognise the contribution of PGRs to GDP expenditure on R&D during their period of study by:

  • Committing to growing its investment in postgraduate training and research by at least 27.5%.
  • Exploring how to safeguard the reputation of the UK doctorate and its attractiveness to overseas candidates.
  • Working with other funders of doctoral research to ensure that the UK doctorate remains able to leverage R&D expenditure from charitable and industrial sectors.

Diversity in UK Doctoral Provision

It is a strength of the UK Higher Education system that doctoral provision is diverse because this diversity safeguards research innovation, accessibility of doctoral-level study, and allows multiple entry-points and collaborations with other R&D sectors.4

UKRI-funded doctoral candidates represent a small proportion (20 – 25%) of the total Postgraduate Researcher (PGR) population in the UK.

~85% of UKRI doctoral studentships are funded through Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) and Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). These multi-institutional structures are intended to:

  • Provide innovative training environments for doctoral-level research;
  • Put more emphasis on match-funding’ from Higher Education Institutions;
  • Facilitate a cohort model’ for doctoral study which reflects a wider emphasis to create research cultures based on team science’ and collaborative scholarship.

We support these aims, but report concerns from among our stakeholders that the CDT / DTP mechanisms may inadvertently create barriers to equity, diversity and inclusion by obscuring application processes; by excluding HEIs who fall outside consortia but who have greater experience of recruiting and supporting under-represented PGR populations; and by suppressing non-standard’ approaches and research methodologies. We urge that the Government considers these concerns when deploying any New Deal’ for PGR funding.

We strongly support the joint Research England / Office for Students £8 million funding competition to improve access to and participation in postgraduate research for Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates.

We recommend that the aims of this funding competition be supported by further consideration of how the Quality-Related Research Degree Funding (QR RDP) system be used to promote positive and inclusive postgraduate research cultures. At present, this system is calculated based on the scores derived from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Research Excellence Grant in Scotland against the number of UK-domiciled PGRs enrolled. However, the REF evaluation process gives little weight to positive and inclusive practices in postgraduate research and supervisor development and is a poor proxy for the quality of provision. We therefore recommend that alternative measures be devised to recognise and reward excellent postgraduate research cultures.

We welcome UKRI’s announcement that commencing in 2021/22, 30% of its doctoral studentships will be made available to international postgraduate researchers. This will undoubtedly help to maintain the reputation and attractiveness of the UK doctorate to non-UK domiciled potential candidates. It should be noted, however, that UKRI has committed to covering the home fee level’ and not the international fee rate’. The home fee level is supplemented by the Quality-Related Research Degree Funding (QR RDP) system, which rewards UK-domiciled PGR enrolments. In consequence, HEIs are faced with the choice of accepting a loss of income for enrolling a UKRI funded non-UK PGR at the home fee or attempting to recoup the difference from the applicant or other sources. This misalignment between QR RDP and UKRI funding for international doctoral candidates disincentivises HEIs from implementing equitable recruitment practices for international talent. It is strongly recommended that these two funding routes be aligned.

Contribution of Postgraduate Researchers to R&D

Doctoral degrees are qualifications rooted in original research — the creation of new knowledge or originality in the application of knowledges” (QAA 2018, p.2). Unlike any other UK qualification, the basis for the doctoral degree is a contribution to research. The research outputs of postgraduate researchers, therefore, contribute directly to the UK’s R&D profile.

The doctoral degree is highest academic qualification an HEI can award. Postgraduate researchers are therefore striving to excel in their field of study. Individuals in the pursuit of excellence are widely thought to create an environment of reciprocal causality’ in which their striving to excel induces others to strive to excel’ (Casey 2009: p.224). Postgraduate researchers are therefore critical to the vibrancy of the UK’s research environment.

PGRs contribute to research publications. In one international study (Lariviere, V 2011), doctoral candidates contributed to about a third of the publication output of the region studied.5

UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) research has recently shown that 82% of those involved with research supervision agree that doctoral supervision enhances my own research”.

Doctoral researchers drive innovation in research methodologies; challenge supervisors to expand their own research interests, and to develop their practical and personal skills. Postgraduate researchers, therefore, drive the development of research interests and skills of research supervisors themselves.

Postgraduate Researchers are the engine’ of research. As one research supervisor put it:

More and more now, PhD students are the life-blood of laboratories. Funding is limited. Postdocs are very expensive. With PhD students, you have the people who reward you by doing great work and generating the data you need for the next grant. 
STEM, Russell Group, London, Mid-career (UK Council for Graduate Education 2021).


Casey, B 2009: The economic contribution of PhDs” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 31:3, 219–227

Lariviere, V 2011: On the shoulders of students? The contribution of PhD students to the advancement of knowledge”. Scientometrics. 90

OECD Frascati Manual 2015: Guidelines for Collecting and Reporting Data on Research and Experimental Development, The Measurement of Scientific, Technological and Innovation Activities, OECD Publishing, Paris

Office for National Statistics, April 2021: Research and development expenditure by the UK government 2019, ONS Statistical Bulletin

UK Council for Graduate Education 2020: PhD Cohort Programmes – UKCGE Discussion Paper

UK Council for Graduate Education 2020b: A Guide for Research Supervisors in Organisations Outside Higher Education

UK Council for Graduate Education 2021 (forthcoming): UK Research Supervision Survey 2021

QAA 2018: UK Quality Code for Higher Education Advice and Guidance Research Degrees


  1. 1 Office for National Statistics (ONS) Research and Development Expenditure by the UK Government 2019 does not analyse expenditure according to expenditure on R&D personnel. Further analysis is offered by the ONS, but the direct and immediate contribution of postgraduate education and training to R&D expenditure is not made clear. 
  2. 2 Tuition fee income’ is not a proxy for research performance, and therefore falls outside Frascati rules for calculating R&D expenditure, but it nevertheless gives an indication of the scale of the PGR contribution to R&D GDP which is not otherwise sponsored by Government. 
  3. 3 The breakdown of 2019/20 income is as follows: ~£192m (UK Domiciled), ~£52m (EU Domiciled), and ~£501m (Non-EU Domiciled) 
  4. 4 UK doctoral provision encompasses: individual’ doctorates, structured’ doctorates, doctorates by publication’, Professional doctorates, Practice-led doctorates and Collaborative doctorates, and is provided across ~149 Higher Education Institutions. 
  5. 5 In May 2021, the UKCGE conducted the largest UK-wide consultation on research supervision which elicited 3,435 responses from doctoral supervisors from over 140+ institutions. 

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