Research Fortnight: University Alliance goes it alone with PhD training partnership

Twelve universities from the University Alliance of business-focused post-1992 institutions are launching a doctoral training partnership that is not sponsored by the research councils.

The Doctoral Training Alliance in Applied Biosciences for Health, first mooted by the universities in March, will accept its first cohort of 24 students—two at each participating university—in the 2015-16 academic year. The aim is to have 72 students enrolled by 2017-18.

Paul Harrison, the pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Sheffield Hallam University, one of the creators of the scheme, told Research Fortnight that it was conceived as a self-funded venture from the outset, rather than as a reaction to any failed bids to the research councils for doctoral training partnerships.

He says this has given organisers a certain freedom. “We never had the pressure of having to design a training programme to a deadline for a specific bid. We were able to start with a blank sheet of paper and the question: ‘What are the qualities we’re looking for our graduates to have?’”

Students will first meet at a two-day residential launch shortly after enrolment, and there will be a series of training courses during their three-year PhD programmes. This may culminate in internships with relevant companies.

The courses will be funded directly by each university on a quid pro quo basis, with students getting the same benefits as they would from a partnership funded by the research councils. “We can cherry-pick the best training courses from each of the universities and bring them together into one coherent programme,” Harrison says.

All the same, the University Alliance does not intend for the doctoral training alliance to remain self-funded forever. “Certainly it’ll strengthen any future case we may make to a research council for doctoral training funding,” says Harrison. “Indeed, it may also position us well for programmes funded by the European Union.”

For now, though, the University Alliance’s business focus is what seems to drive the partnership. Maddalaine Ansell, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement that it had been developed “in response to industry needs” and aims to deliver “highly employable researchers with knowledge, expertise and skills in a growth sector for the UK”.

Harrison adds that an independent advisory board, which will include industry representatives, will oversee the training alliance. Recruitment to the board is under way, he says, and two people have already agreed to participate—one is involved in a related Innovate UK knowledge transfer network, and the other is a representative from one of the research councils.

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