A place to call home

Graduate schools are taking root in the UK to keep doctoral students engaged and on track. Hannah Fearn reports

October 22, 2009

"Grad school": it is a quintessentially North American term, conjuring up images of autumn leaves drifting across campus lawns and idle students decked out in Abercrombie and Fitch gear.

Until the mid-1990s, UK postgraduate students rarely had a dedicated base to call home, with the administration, management and support of their research efforts typically being bundled in with the day-to-day business of their academic departments.

Yet with the rapid growth in postgraduate numbers, UK universities began to emulate the graduate-school model in an attempt to manage their burgeoning research-student populations. Between 1997-98 and 2007-08, the number of postgraduate students in the UK grew by 64 per cent, from 305,069 to 501,135, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. In 1994, only 34 UK universities, about a third of the total, had a graduate school, according to the UK Council for Graduate Education. By 2005, two thirds had one. The latest study from the council is expected to reveal that those without a graduate school are now planning to establish one.

The University of Bristol is the latest university to take its postgraduate students in hand by establishing a graduate school in its faculty of arts and humanities. The school opened this term, with the first administrative and academic staff moving into the new offices last month.

James Clark, incoming academic head of the school, explains that it was established as Bristol looked across the Atlantic for answers to the questions of how to manage its growing and increasingly diverse postgraduate-student population.

"We were conscious that Britain had either lagged behind or perhaps had elected to follow a different course in continuing to concentrate its postgraduate energies at the more local level of faculties, departments or schools," Clark says.

"We were keen to challenge that trend and look at what our North American counterparts have done with more centralised units. We also felt we were responding to what we have seen over the past decade, which is the growth of postgraduate activity."

Importantly, research students now typically work across a number of academic disciplines. Rather than having a single point of contact in their academic department, such as a supervisor who also acts as a personal tutor or mentor, postgraduates may find that their work has no natural home. A graduate school, however, provides just that.

Clark says that Bristol's move responds "to the changing profile of the postgraduate research student and many research fields becoming more multidisciplinary. There may be no one researcher who can help them. There are a growing number of fields that our postgraduates focus on that do not neatly map on to traditional departments or disciplines. There is a need for support that they may not find at the local level."

He adds that Bristol's postgraduate students will benefit from the graduate school, receiving extra support throughout their studies, but the knock-on benefits for the rest of the institution will be considerable, too. As the school rationalises the administration of postgraduates, academics will be freed up to get on with "what they do best - teaching postgraduates - while the administration is handed to dedicated administrators".

As it settles in, Bristol can certainly consider the experiences of the University of Toronto. The institution, which has been granting postgraduate degrees since the early 1900s, established its School of Graduate Studies in 1922.

"It has had a long history. There have been, in those 90 years, several major periods of navel-gazing, but every time the decision has been made to keep a centralised body," says Berry Smith, Toronto's vice-dean of graduate studies. "We have seen some considerable shifts in its strength. It gained more and more power until the mid-1990s, when there was a decentralisation and a shift to the divisions and departments."

Now the university has settled on what Smith calls a "leaner and meaner" school, down from 60 members of staff to 40 - which is still an increase from the 30 it had in the 1990s.

The university retained its central graduate school because of its ability to facilitate the administrative process, with dedicated staff to manage scholarships and bursaries. It acts as the primary point of contact for academic and social events for Toronto's postgraduates. It also provides quality control.

"There has been a huge expansion of postgraduate education," Smith says. "Central to that is the sense that the PhD is an institutional degree, and thus there is a feeling that we needed some sort of overall quality control for graduate studies.

"We have a hugely diverse academic base, with some very small divisions and some huge ones, so their ability to manage everything from quality to process is variable."

When responsibility for looking after postgraduates is entirely devolved, "everybody knows their local environment but nobody can see the forest. We've given a lot of thought to what we want to centralise. The most difficult thing is the transition between the local power group and the centralised school," Smith observes.

Toronto has advice on how to make a graduate school a success. First, Smith says, the university should establish a clear mission for the school and each individual department with regard to postgraduates. It should also establish rules of engagement between the parties.

"I think our model works reasonably well. In some ways it's necessary to have some centre of expertise in any university to answer the questions that go beyond individual departments. How you make it happen is a different question, and often the devil is in the detail."

Smith warns against "creating a bureaucracy that trebles the work".

And it is not just North America that can offer pointers to building strong graduate schools.

At the University of Auckland in New Zealand, the School of Graduate Studies is used as a means to promote postgraduate study and the quality of research at the university, and to help meet internal targets for postgraduate growth. It acts as a hub for the postgraduate community. "Students can walk into the school and access advice from postgraduate advisers and administrators, submit theses, access computers and obtain brochures on future career directions," says Gregor Coster, dean of graduate studies.

The school also provides essential support for new research students, a service often lacking in UK universities and their academic departments. It runs a doctoral-skills programme to assist postgraduates as they progress through their research.

Many UK institutions have already blazed the trail, among them Bath Spa University, Durham University, Goldsmiths, University of London and University College London.

Lancaster University has had a central graduate school in place for almost a decade. An early mover, the university realised in the 1990s that it would need a new way of dealing with the snowballing number of postgraduates.

"Things were moving rapidly in terms of postgraduate education. We set up a graduate school that looked after students both in terms of academic and social facilities," says Geraint Johnes, professor of economics and dean of graduate studies at Lancaster. "At the time the decision was driven by the numbers and the shifting composition of postgraduates. There was a lot of emphasis on overseas recruitment.

"The school gives us a way of dealing with admissions, referrals, awards and quality assurance. It also provides a very natural forum for sharing good practice. That's particularly important in the postgraduate remit because there is such diversity in the nature of provision. I think it does give that natural community infrastructure."

Lancaster has now set up a graduate school in each faculty, with more and more responsibility being devolved downwards. This, Johnes says, is not undoing the good work of the graduate school, but it does "leave some interesting things to resolve. We have got to ensure that as we devolve, we don't do so in a way that compromises the gains that we have enjoyed. But I would advise setting up at the faculty level: for things such as admissions it's very useful."

For British institutions, now is the time to act. As funders of research, including the research councils, begin to pool their support centrally (via initiatives such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council's block-grant scheme), a single point of administrative contact for all postgraduates can streamline the system.

"We were conscious that the key funders of postgraduate research were beginning to look towards the global model of a centralised unit," Clark says. "This is much more sensible than the traditional British model."

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