Slipping through the net

A positive student experience is one of the most effective hooks for catching both undergraduates and postgraduates

August 14, 2014

Imagine, if you will, an angler’s nightmare: there they are sitting by a pond, enjoying the solitude and plentiful koi carp, when a second fisherman arrives, followed by a third. Then, with a rustle of the bulrushes, a Japanese factory ship emerges, emptying the waters with one mechanised scoop.

It’s the sort of bad dream that might be waking admissions officers in a cold sweat this week.

Universities are increasingly sensitive, and in some cases vulnerable, to the threat of overfishing in their “pond” during student recruitment season.

In the past few years the risk was posed by the AAB, ABB and core-and-margin policies, designed to inject competition into a stillborn “market”.

This time around, universities will be waiting with bated breath (and baited hooks) to see whether the admissions cycle will be destabilised by fluctuations in A-level performance, after a warning from exam regulator Ofqual to expect greater “volatility”.

The approach to recruitment has been modified to deal with competition, and an additional 30,000 student places this year will provide a margin of 6 per cent on quotas.

The government is under no illusion about the threat to postgraduate education; it has just failed to do anything about it

But there remain concerns about how the emerging market will affect institutions that find their pool either drying up or targeted by rivals a rung or two above in the popularity stakes.

In this context, the National Student Survey results published this week assume growing significance, with the student experience now a key battleground.

The student experience, of course, is not an exclusively undergraduate concern, and in our cover feature on PhD post-mortems, we raise our gaze to the postgraduate level.

It isn’t the sunniest of summer reads: of the five doctoral students and graduates that we speak to, most are planning careers away from academic research. But they provide a rich insight into some of the unique challenges of doctoral life.

One issue that rears its head is funding, which has been wilfully neglected by policymakers. The government is under no illusion about the threat to postgraduate education posed by the lack of state-backed loans; it has just failed to do anything about it.

Other issues raised will be familiar enough too, including pressure to complete and the loneliness that is often part of postgrad life.

Improvements are being made, for example through doctoral training centres, which aim to improve the consistency of supervision and bring PhD students together.

Nevertheless, the individual experiences of these five interviewees highlight the kaleidoscope of “experiences” among early career researchers, and help to explain the surprising statistic that, according to research carried out in 2010, only a fifth of UK PhD holders were working in higher education research roles three-and-a-half years after completing.

This is not always a negative outcome, and many more work in teaching or in research-related jobs elsewhere. It’s also the case that the majority of our interviewees felt that their PhD experience had, overall, been positive. Yet the travails they describe, combined with the lack of finance and the effects of undergraduate debt, will add to nervousness about how domestic doctoral admissions might hold up in years ahead.

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