Leader: Postgrads deserve better

The social and personal-development needs of students who study for higher degrees must be taken more seriously

October 22, 2009

Postgraduates are our future. Without them, the academy is unsustainable: they are the teachers and researchers of tomorrow. But even beyond that, educating postgraduates is important for the future prosperity of the nation. First Secretary Lord Mandelson, who knows a good business opportunity for UK plc when he sees one, announced a review of postgraduate provision this summer, describing it as "a major export earner for the UK, and one which we have perhaps taken too much for granted".

Indeed. In the UK, postgraduate needs often go unheard amid the clamour over undergraduate education, unlike in the US, where they are often accorded a higher priority. With jobs in short supply, the numbers wanting to take postgraduate courses have increased; even before the downturn, they had grown by more than 64 per cent in ten years. But it is vital that universities have the structures in place to support their postgraduates properly.

The arguments over the practical issues - whether students should have a masters before embarking on a PhD and whether three years is long enough for a doctorate - are well rehearsed. But what about the social and personal-development needs of doctoral students, which can make or break an academic career? These are arguably as important. Getting the wrong supervisor, for whatever reason, can make all the difference between completing and not completing, and changing supervisor can be very traumatic.

Behind non-completion figures are stories of personal tragedy, not only in terms of financial investment, but also in terms of the time, effort and hope that came to naught. Even within the Times Higher Education office, there are three individuals who gave up on their doctoral studies: one after two and a half years (a personality clash with her supervisor, who didn't speak to her for six months), and two after one year (the crushing isolation of the experience; and a famous but absent supervisor). As Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at the University of Brighton, writes in our cover story: "behind every non-submission is the life of a student whose academic dreams have been destroyed".

That is why the system that underpins the postgraduate experience is so important. If that is in place and functioning well, these problems have a chance of being rectified.

The obvious first step is to have a centralised graduate centre, and we've come a long, long way since 1996, when the UK Council for Graduate Education described postgraduate education in the UK as "a cottage industry": by 2005, only one third of universities were without a graduate school. But it is what takes place within these centres that is most important: good supervision, leadership and administration, orientation, specialised support and feedback - in fact, a commitment to the PhD experience that must be embraced by the whole university.

It is a commitment that postgraduates deserve. After all, they represent large sums of money to their institutions and if only for that reason they should command better facilities, better support and better supervision. Yes, we should see them as more than the fees they bring in, as Professor Brabazon insists, but acknowledging this while giving them the experience they deserve wouldn't be a bad place to start.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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