Sir Ron's forgotten legion

September 5, 1997

Postgraduate students face a bleak, debt-ridden future after being overlooked by the Dearing committee, argues Ewan Gillon

Sir Ron Dearing's review has provided us with a blueprint for higher education over the next 20 years.

However, Sir Ron seems to have lost touch with a number of central elements of the larger picture. One of these central elements is the role of postgraduate courses and the place of postgraduate students within higher education. As a fifth of all students can be roughly classified as postgraduates this seems a rather significant omission, yet little or no attention has been paid to this in the heat of debate following the publication of the Dearing report. One reason for this neglect is that postgraduates are often thought of as a small and an insignificant aspect of the student community.

Certainly, for a long time postgraduate courses such as master's degrees or PhDs were reserved for those wishing a scholarly career or requiring specialist expertise. However, in recent years, postgraduate education has expanded hugely as graduates compete for jobs. As a consequence of such competition, a postgraduate degree is increasingly regarded as a standard requirement by many employers.

While the remarkable expansion in the number of postgraduate students has been one of the most notable features of higher education in the past five years, Sir Ron has failed to consider the implications of his funding proposals for this increasingly large population. By introducing tuition fees for undergraduate courses, the financial burden placed upon graduates leaving university will be considerable. It is quite likely that graduates may complete their undergraduate course with debts of up to and over Pounds 10,000. However, to continue on to undertake a further year or more of postgraduate study, a prospective student will generally have to find a minimum of Pounds 2,500 fees per year plus the money to live on.

Calculating this level of debt over the four years that it generally takes to complete a PhD, it is quite probable that some students may leave higher education with arrears totalling an amount similar to a mortgage. Moreover, while a proportionately greater number of PhD students receive funding than those undertaking shorter taught courses such as masters degrees, funds are becoming increasingly stretched. In some subject areas, no funding is available for taught courses, and is offered to only one in ten applicants for a research degree such as a PhD.

For many the only option is further borrowing. Yet as it stands the only loans available to postgraduates are those tied to career development and offered at almost commercial rates by high street banks. As these loans are only given to those students on courses which are likely to lead to lucrative employment, they are hard to get. Consequently, many students are prevented by lack of money from obtaining the required postgraduate qualification for their career choice. Moreover, with the increased debt arising from undergraduate tuition fees, many graduates may be put off postgraduate study when they realise their debt could spiral up to unmanageable proportions in a very short time.

Sir Ron has failed to consider these issues when producing his funding proposals, and ignored the central demand of postgraduate students for a properly thought through, and regulated, system of funding. This failure will have many detrimental effects. For example, it seems likely that the demand for arts and humanities courses with considerable cultural, but little economic, worth will decrease. Many students will simply not get funding for such courses, or be able to justify running up huge debts knowing that their earning potential is modest.

While the decline in this sector will be stemmed, to some extent, by the proposed new arts and humanities research council, the amount of money likely to made available to postgraduate students by this body is minimal, and thus unlikely to offer many more funded places than exist already. This will inevitably lead to decline in the numbers of students undertaking expert training and scholarly activity in this area, and eventually the reduction in scale and significance of our cultural base.

The numbers of students undertaking doctoral research with a view to an academic career may also be squeezed by Sir Ron's failure to adequately address the funding issue. As academic salaries and permanent job prospects are extremely poor when compared with the private sector, the inevitability of long-term and large-scale debt is bound to deter even the most optimistic. This may seem acceptable to the Dearing committee now - too many PhDs are chasing too few academic jobs. However, if higher education continues to expand, as Sir Ron envisages, it will not be too long before the balance tips in the other direction and there will not be enough trained academics to teach and support the burgeoning undergraduate population. Hence, quality and standards will be compromised, and a downward spiral set in train that will take considerable time and money to turn around.

A similarly problematic state of affairs is likely to arise from the review's proposals regarding the future funding of research. One of these key proposals is that departments with a poor research profile will be given the opportunity to opt out of the RAE and instead receive a per capita staff allowance for scholarship and personal research. This proposal, based on the United States model of higher education, will result in departments and institutions whose role is primarily teaching and scholarship, and not research. Such institutions will require highly trained academics with PhDs to act as lecturers. Yet, as the PhD stands, it involves little or no training for such a role, providing instead an in-depth knowledge of a very specific subject area and a rigorous training in research. Those with PhD's taking academic positions within teaching departments are thus likely to be untrained in their primary role, and may be unsatisfied with their position in general. The postgraduate qualification they selected and pursued for over three to four years was designed to give them a training, and career, in research.

For Sir Ron, the only solution to this state of affairs was, quite simply, to revise the role of the PhD; perhaps offering alternative routes with emphasis either on high-level teaching or research. This at least would address the problem over the longer term and give students some choice. However, the committee has failed to provide this kind of support for the system they are creating. Moreover they have neglected entirely the implications for those who are perhaps now in the middle of a PhD, and who will emerge at the end to find a different scenario to the one they envisaged when starting.

Those completing PhDs may also face an additional problem when looking for a job. Over the past few years, many new universities have heavily recruited research students as a means of developing their research base. The thought behind this was that an influx of postgraduate students would generate research and thus give impetus to their desire to get their hands on RAE cash. However, as it stands, to maximise income many departments within such institutions will not enter the new RAE and instead opt for the per-capita scholarship allowance for their staff. Yet, the majority of these departments will have a number of postgraduate students doing research degrees. By opting out of the RAE, these departments are acknowledging the weakness of their research profile. One possible implication may be that their PhDs are of low quality. This may adversely, and unfairly, affect the job prospects of those students who have already undertaken their research degree. The same is true right up the academic scale but this possibility does not seem to have been considered by Sir Ron, once again to the potential detriment of many postgraduate students.

Ewan Gillon was a member of the working group on research for the Dearing Inquiry. He has just completed his PhD at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh.

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