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Graduate Education in Britain
April 28, 1995

Graduate education is assuming increasing significance in Britain's system of higher education. It is growing faster than any other part of it: during the 1980s there was a 61 per cent increase in postgraduate students. Recent funding restrictions on the expansion of undergraduate education have increased the pressure to attract more postgraduates. A striking feature of this growth is that the number of students taking taught masters' degrees increased more rapidly than the number doing doctoral research. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service announced that from 1996 it would offer institutions an admissions system for their taught postgraduate courses. This pattern was reinforced by the 1993 White Paper, Realising our Potential - A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, which was published shortly before this book went to press but of which the authors, to their credit, have managed to take account.

The authors have in fact made a valuable contribution to a more wide-ranging policy for graduate education than that provided by the science White Paper. The book itself is the fruit of a research project which provides an interesting synthesis of national trends and detailed case studies. These were carried out in 18 university departments which were chosen to represent large, medium and small centres of research in six subjects: physics and biochemistry (in the natural sciences); economics and sociology (in the social sciences); history and modern languages in the humanities. This selection was made to investigate any differences across these epistemological and disciplinary areas.

One of the outcomes of the case studies is that they confirm the common perception that humanities doctorates are largely the fruit of personally chosen topics pursued by lone researchers while natural science postgraduates tend to collaborate on projects led by their supervisors. Social science doctorates range between these two models, but with collaborative projects becoming more common.

A more disturbing outcome of the case studies is the evidence of isolation and marginalisation experienced by a significant number of students. Not only was supervision sometimes woeful, but the research students were not always made welcome among a community of scholars, with inadequate accommodation and insufficient opportunities to engage in intellectual discussion with their peers.

The pervading theme of the book is that too little attention has been paid to the development and implementation of a systematic policy for graduate education. It is true that the Government, the research councils and the universities themselves have become more interventionist in recent years, but what happens in practice is still largely decided by the enthusiasms of particular departments or, indeed, individual members of staff. A tension is revealed between the forces of individual creativity and economic determinism, or even between individuals' therapeutic needs and those of the national labour market. The THES not long ago reported that more doctorates are being proposed on Angela Carter than on all topics in 18th-century English literature put together. On the other hand, the research councils have just been reorganised in pursuit of the wealth creating goals of the 1993 White Paper and the British Academy is moving towards establishing the priorities of the research community and no longer making awards on the basis of individual applications alone.

A related point frequently made by the authors is that our system of graduate education has to contribute to the basic training for future academics. They emphasise, quite rightly, the importance of doctoral research for future higher education teachers, but they make no reference to the equally important issue of their preparation specifically as teachers. In this context it is interesting to consider the views which were put forward in 1991 in the first of the occasional Green Papers issued by the Universities' Staff Development and Training Unit, Teaching Standards and Excellence in Higher Education. It argued for the need to introduce incentives to reward teaching excellence in exactly the same way as has been done for research. Incidentally, the impact on graduate education of these incentives for research excellence is insufficiently explored in this book.

What the book does do is provide a useful research base and a set of arguments for the development of a more systematic approach to graduate education in Britain and as such it fits well in the Higher Education Policy Series. One telling indication of how far we still have to go is the paucity of data about the careers of graduates and postgraduates: 25 per cent of the destinations of the students who completed doctorates in 1990 were still not known in 1992; the figure for students who completed taught masters degrees was 38 per cent. And these are the figures for students funded by the research councils.

John Lowe, academic registrar, New College Durham.

Graduate Education in Britain

Author - Tony Becher, Mary Henkel and Maurice Kogan
ISBN - 1 85302 531 3
Publisher - Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Price - £25.00
Pages - 214pp

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