Lace under heavyweight fire

March 3, 1995

Sheila Mason describes her experience of studying part-time for ten years for a PhD at Nottingham University as a "postgraduate horror story". The shortest part of this horror story was her viva. Between 2.40pm and 3.10pm on a June afternoon in 1993 she was told that her thesis was not even suitable for an MPhil, let alone a PhD - and that she could not resubmit.

The experience has left Mrs Mason very disillusioned with the university, to whom she has paid more than Pounds 3,000 in fees. "If my experience is even partially typical of the type of treatment to be encountered in British universities then an investigation is urgently needed because many universities could be falling far short of an acceptable standard," she says.

Mrs Mason's story began in 1976 when, as director of a number of lace making companies, she applied to read for a research degree on the "Lace Industry: 1870-1970" at the university. Stanley Chapman, then a reader in economic and social history and now professor of history, replied that he was not sure that there was enough material to form the basis of a research degree in that subject.

Mrs Mason let her application lapse. In 1983 she again applied to Nottingham University, but this time to read for an MPhil. In January 1984 a ten-page outline of the thesis was accepted. In June 1987 the work was upgraded by the university to a PhD - its title was "Machine-made lace in the East Midlands".

Mrs Mason was to be supervised jointly by John Beckett of Nottingham University and Marilyn Palmer of Loughborough University.

In the ten years she spent studying, Mrs Mason describes her supervision as "almost non-existent". She never saw Dr Palmer to discuss her research, and met Dr Beckett (now professor), only 22 times, instead of the 48 times laid down in the university's Handbook for Research Students. This states: "University regulations require that all part-time research students should have at least six supervision tutorials each year." During five of the years Mrs Mason only saw Professor Beckett once a year.

What particularly angers Mrs Mason is that her reports and fees were sent annually to the university, and that both were accepted without comment. "At no time was a half-yearly report requested, as would have been the case if progress had not been considered satisfactory."

Professor Beckett's comments, while criticising aspects of the thesis and requesting some reworking, did not give any indication that it had a fundamental flaw. In May 1992 he wrote on a chapter: "everything coming on well".

The thesis was submitted for examination in April of the following year. One of the examiners was the same Dr Chapman who, 13 years before, had questioned whether there were enough documents to support such a thesis. The other was Roy Church of the University of East Anglia. They told Mrs Mason at the beginning of the viva that they could not recommend a PhD, or even an MPhil.

"Whatever I had expected of a viva it was not this, I was expecting at least some questions about what I had written," says Mrs Mason. All agree that the viva was acrimonious.

Mrs Mason wrote to the vice chancellor of Nottingham University, Colin Campbell, asking to see Professor Church's and Dr Chapman's "fully reasoned comments".

Sir Colin Campbell replied that he did not wish to intervene in the formal appeals procedure, and that she could have access to the examiners' reports - subject to their consent.

In September 1993 Mrs Mason's appeal to the board of postgraduate studies went ahead. She had not been allowed to see the full versions of the examiners' reports. Her appeal that there was "evidence of incomplete assessment" was upheld at the hearing in December because of the unsatisfactory viva. She was given the opportunity to resubmit.

Eventually, in May 1994, Mrs Mason received a 12-page report from the history department. Ten years after she had started her PhD and nearly a year after the viva it had been discovered that there was a "lack of a question at the root of the thesis", that it had "no clearly defined theme, and no attempt to answer an historically significant question".

Mrs Mason has decided that she will probably not resubmit. "The whole experience has been too shattering," she says.

Since the report there has been no communication between her and Nottingham University. She has published her thesis. Nottingham Lace 1760s-1950s has a foreword from Lord Asa Briggs, former provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and recently retired chancellor of the Open University, which describes the book as a "model account of an industry which is of equal interest to economic and to social historians, and it can be rightly described as definitive. Fortunately Sheila Mason is aware of the relevance of detail as well as of generalisation and her book is firmly rooted in local and regional life".

Nottingham University defends its treatment of Mrs Mason on the grounds that she was adequately supervised, and that her appeal was upheld. No time limit was placed on her resubmission - and she is still free to resubmit. It acknowledges that "the viva voca was brief and unsatisfactory" and explains the decision to uphold her appeal.

"After the examiners disclosed their decision to fail the thesis their wish was to discuss that decision with the candidate. Their conclusion was that Mrs Mason's response to their announcement and her unwillingness to accept anything they said brought the viva to an unsatisfactory ending. This was the state of affairs that led to the appeal considering there had been incomplete assessment."

Of the supervision it says: "Mrs Mason's supervisor, who had recommended that she be allowed to upgrade in 1987, believed the decision to submit was justified, although that justification is, of course, no guarantee of success. Throughout the period of time that Mrs Mason had been registered, her supervisor had taken into account personal problems she had experienced, including the illness of her husband."

A spokesman added that the supervisor concerned feels that he often went beyond what was required of him in the university regulations when supervising Mrs Mason. She had his home number and he was always willing to talk to students and discuss their problems.

Mrs Mason does not insist that she should have been given a PhD, saying that she can see faults in her work. "I am fortunate," she says "that my future does not rest on the outcome of research."

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