Page last updated at 16:40 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Warning on two-tier universities

University staircase
The future of postgraduate education is under scrutiny

New universities are warning of a "two-tier system" if funding for postgraduate students is restricted to a number of elite institutions.

The Million+ group, representing new universities, says high-level postgraduate study is integral to all sections of higher education.

Some other universities are calling for the funding of PhDs to be focused on research-intensive institutions.

A government-commissioned review of postgraduate education is underway.

This debate, ahead of the publication of the review's findings, considers whether all types of university should continue to offer all kinds of higher education provision.

'Quality threshold'

"A concentration of postgraduate research funding will mean that business, the economy and participation will suffer," says Pam Tatlow, Million+ chief executive.

"And the creation of a seemingly 'two-tiered' system will inevitably weaken the reputation of UK universities both at home and in the global market place."

Million+ has rejected calls for the re-shaping of the expanding postgraduate sector - arguing against advanced research being concentrated in a smaller number of institutions.

It says that 37% of postgraduate provision is in "modern universities", including 10% of doctorates, and that these universities provide places for 30% of overseas students - an important and lucrative part of the higher education sector.

The new universities group also raises questions about of the implications for social mobility if postgraduate courses, such as PhDs, were to be restricted.

The postgraduate sector has been expanding - up by 12% between 2002 and 2008 - but this has been driven by an increase in overseas students, with little growth in postgraduate students from the UK.

The government has asked Adrian Smith, former principal of Queen Mary, University of London, to carry out a review of postgraduate education in the UK.

The 1994 Group, which represents research-intensive universities, has called for a "new quality threshold on PhD provision".

It argues that focusing PhD funding on a narrower range of institutions would be a more efficient use of public money.

Using factors such as the completion rate for doctorates, it says that research-intensive universities of the 1994 Group and Russell Group are "far more productive".

"This would still allow all institutions to provide PhDs if they wish, but provision below the quality threshold would be reliant on fee income rather than government funds," says the 1994 Group.

Professor Smith's review is due to be published in the next few weeks.

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