Aisling Irwin and Tony Tysome report on the pitfalls of studying abroad. The case of a student who went overseas to do her PhD - only to leave in debt and without her doctorate as her department collapsed around her - has highlighted the need to check thoroughly before entrusting supervision to unknown academics.
Helen Sandos was invited by an Australian university department to study for her doctorate with them. But she claims that when she arrived her supervisor, who was also professor and head of department, had lost interest in her subject. The three-strong department was too small to provide alternative supervision. Sandos gradually became a victim of a large and complicated dispute that eventually led to the shutting down of her department. During this time she went through three more supervisors, including one who was then sacked and one from another department. "I dutifully paid tuition fees for four years, but was rarely free to concentrate on my studies," she says. "I finally ran out of money before my thesis was finished."
Sandos now owes Pounds 5,000 to the university and cannot submit her thesis until it is paid. Back in this country she is living on social security. She believes she will not be able to find a job until she has her PhD. She is appealing directly to the Australian minister of education to cancel her debt.
Sandos regrets that she did not investigate the department more thoroughly before she took up her PhD. "I should never have gone to such a small department. I was told it was new, it was small, it didn't have many facilities, it would expand. I thought it was rather fun to be in a small department."
She advises postgraduates to check the details of their departments. "Try to ensure that there is alternative supervision of adequate standard available. Find out just what your rights are in terms of what sort of protection the university can offer you if something goes wrong."
The British Council says: "You shouldn't take anything for granted. It really is a case of 'buyer beware'. You should do as many checks as you can, although in countries outside Europe and the United States you may find it difficult."
James Irvine, of the UK National Postgraduate Committee, says that students should even consider visiting the institution, since the extra cost of doing this would be justified if it meant avoiding the kind of situation described by Ms Sandos.
"It is impossible to really know what a particular department or supervisor is like unless you have been there and asked plenty of questions. An institution may have a good reputation, but within it the kind of service and support you get can vary a lot."
The most reliable information about a department can be obtained from past and present students, and an institution should be happy to put you in touch with them. "If the institution refuses to help in this way then you may have cause to worry," he says.
It may be worth trying to get some kind of learning contract with the institution, although few universities like to be tied in this way.
"It is usually the case that you will not pay all fees up-front, so you have the option of threatening to pull out if you feel you are being treated badly. Most universities will respond positively because they do not want to throw away valuable overseas fees," he says.
Organisations that supply basic information on institutions and their departments in Europe and the United States include: the Department for Education's publications centre, PO Box 2193, London E15 2EU, which produces The European Choice: a guide to opportunities for higher education in Europe; the German Academic Exchange Service at 17 Bloomsbury Square, London WClA 2LP; the Fulbright Commission (for USA) at 62 Doughty Street, London WClN 2LF; and the British Council's National Academic Recognition Information Centre in Medlock Street, Manchester.
("Helen Sandos" is a pseudonym).