With doctoral supervision set to undergo radical change, Chris Bunting kicks off a THES series tracking four students over the duration of their research.
The PhD thesis was so awful that there seemed no alternative but to fail it. Susan Bassnett, professor of translation and comparative cultural studies at the University of Warwick, who was acting as an external examiner, rang up her contact at the university from which it came and shared her conclusions.
There was a scream of pain from the other end of the line: "Please don't do that." Bassnett asked why not. The piece was lacking in originality, structure and even basic competence in English. The internal examiner explained: "This candidate was brought in as an overseas student. He has had five different supervisors, none of whom has stayed much more than a few months." The university, it emerged, had been importing doctoral students in bulk from the Middle East, many of them with very poor English.
About 45 candidates were being supervised by two full-time members of staff and two part-timers. Support had almost completely broken down.
When the day of the viva came, Bassnett was advised to sit with a table between her and the candidate. He might attack her in his misery, she was told. "But what happened was much stranger than that," she recalls. "He stood up and said quite emotionally that he was very grateful to be able to speak. It was the first time he had been able to speak about his work to anybody for six years.
"I decided on balance that I had to 'refer' the PhD, that means for it to be completely rewritten, rather than fail it because it was clearly not his fault. I wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor because I thought something really had to be done about what had happened. I never got a reply."
Nightmarish stories about postgraduate supervision have never been in short supply around Britain's universities. Of course, for many people, postgraduate research is some of the most exciting work they ever do. Their relationship with their supervisors, when it works, can be among the most rewarding professional bonds they experience. Others, however, recount tales of laboratory Mussolinis and invisible men who deigned to meet their charges only once a year in the pub.
Bassnett says: "Standards are very variable. You have excellent supervisors and institutions, and you have very poor practice."
But times are changing. With pressure already intense from research councils to limit to three or four years the time spent by candidates on PhDs, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the other national funding bodies will produce a keenly awaited report on improving standards in postgraduate research programmes within the next three months.
That report is expected to criticise the narrowness of some postgraduate programmes, which focus solely on the completion of the main research project without any provision for the development of other skills such as teaching. It is unlikely to recommend a move to the US model of the taught PhD -although some such programmes have begun to appear in vocational subjects on this side of the Atlantic -but a call for more systematic tuition of candidates in skills such as research and teaching is a strong possibility.
Other changes being considered include mandatory training for new supervisors, the introduction of supervisory teams comprising at least two active researchers, a maximum supervisory load (possibly six students) and the enforcement of set numbers of formal, recorded supervisions for each student. No supervisor would be allowed to take the lead supervisory role without previous experience as a member of another student's supervision team.
Tony Fell, an expert member of the UK Centre for Graduate Education, says it should "enhance the consistency and quality of the student experience" if certain stipulations are met, including ensuring that the supervisory team meets regularly and that reports on the meetings are circulated to all members.
The funding bodies have been discussing with the Quality Assurance Agency how to set up an inspection regime for the reforms from 2006. There seems to be an acknowledgement that the inspections should be "light touch", with individual institutions being given the lead in fitting the reforms to their own circumstances.
Nevertheless, while universities with small numbers of postgraduates have serious problems meeting the demands of a more formalised regime, some academics from research-intensive institutions are unhappy that, despite the apparent flexibility, they are in essence being asked to adopt a one-size-fits-all system. "It would be catastrophic for us," Bassnett says.
"The introduction of the two-supervisor rule is something we have tried here and found that it works in some cases and not in others. The problem with the Hefce document is that it is going to be quite good in some senses, but it may be imposed in a blanket way across the system.
"We expressed a lot of unease about Hefce's direction early this year.
However, when the consultation document came back it was pretty much unchanged," Bassnett says.
Another senior academic at a Russell Group university says the reforms risk introducing a "managerial" ethos into postgraduate research. "That is really worrying. We already have this pressure to get PhDs finished in four years, and what that means is that people are coming out with much narrower topics for their research. If it becomes too much of a managed environment, with the supervisor caught up in lots of rules, you are going to have people playing safe," he says.
But what of the PhD horror stories? "I am not sure they exist in the way people want us to believe," he says. "This is always the argument of bureaucrats. They will point vaguely to alleged widespread abuse so they can get their hands on the problem and do a lot of vandalism. The truth is they need to be increasingly selective in where they put their research funding, they need to select people out, and they are going to use all these regulations as an easy bureaucratic way of saying to people they can't have their money."