The boom with no yardstick

May 16, 1997

Postgraduate study needs a framework to deliver quality and standards, argues Robert Burgess

A revolution has occurred in higher education in the past ten years as more students choose to engage in graduate study. Postgraduate work now takes many forms: full-time and part-time courses; academic and vocational courses; education and research training; conventional thesis-based work, and a wide variety of taught courses. Postgraduates constitute a considerable proportion of the student body and in some institutions account for over 20 per cent of students. The result is that postgraduate education and training is no longer a fringe activity with students clinging to the edge of institutional provision.

In these circumstances, a range of questions have been raised about the quality of postgraduate work and the standards attained. However, quality and standards are slippery concepts about which there is little agreement. Often, these terms are operationalised separately in relation to teaching or research. However, at postgraduate level considerations of quality have to be examined in relation to research and teaching as they are intimately intertwined in taught courses and supervision.

But who should be responsible for considering quality and standards at postgraduate level? Some people might argue that this is a key task for the newly established Quality Assurance Agency. Certainly, the agency must thoroughly examine postgraduate as well as undergraduate work. However, this will need to be done without adding to the burdens of academics and administrators. Ways must be devised in which institutions can be held accountable for postgraduate study within a framework that applies to the whole of higher education.

How should quality be defined? For students and their supervisors there are questions to be raised not only about the quality of intake, but also about the quality of provision. For managers of institutions this will demand a consideration of the kinds of services that are available for full-time and part-time students. To what extent do part-time students receive a similar kind of research training to those studying full-time? Are they required to take some of the courses in research methodology that are compulsory for full-timers? Do they have similar access to supervisors and to the support services as full-timers do? These are issues that need to be examined within departments, faculties and institutions given the growth that has occurred in part-time postgraduate registrations. Part-time postgraduate courses and supervision must be of the same quality as full-time students receive. The experience must not be second class.

Overseas postgraduates have also grown considerably in number. Given the fees that this group are expected to pay, they rightly need to know the provision that is made for them. This will involve institutions providing clear information on patterns of teaching and supervision. This must include details of the amount of face to face tuition involved, as this is often an area of confusion given the mismatch between students' expectations and those of their tutors. Similarly, there needs to be some specification of the infrastructure available for all students; about the provision of specialist libraries, computing facilities and language training, and whether such provision will result in additional costs.

Furthermore, the availability of university facilities: workspace, accommodation and so on throughout the year rather than just in the undergraduate terms is essential for postgraduates. This is particularly important as institutions expand the postgraduate student base from cohorts of United Kingdom domiciled 21-year-olds to part-time, mature and overseas students whose expectations of the institution may be much greater.

No matter what postgraduate course students choose to study they will need assurance of the quality (and quantity of supervision). Institutions must consider the expectations of the supervisor including: expertise, availability and training. Such are the demands of postgraduate courses that provision has had to be made to train staff in supervision skills.

It is also essential for supervisors to be able to provide leading-edge training in their subject specialisms. Indeed, some research councils have begun to identify aspects of good practice as far as supervision and training are concerned at doctoral level. For example, the Economic and Social Research Council has issued a set of training guidelines that identify core elements of generic training skills required by all social science postgraduates as well as subject specific elements required by those who will engage in specific subfields of the social sciences. Such moves have been designed to improve the quality of training and enhance its standard.

But how do we assure ourselves of the standard achieved at postgraduate level? For many people in the UK the answer may be external examining, but even external examiners need some guidance. For example, assumptions are often made about undergraduate and postgraduate level as it is assumed that we are clear about the difference. Many institutions offer postgraduate diploma courses; especially for those who are in transition between subject areas. Yet, there are many questions to address about the distinctive attributes of such courses: Do all the modules have to be postgraduate? Can undergraduate modules be used? If they can, what proportion of undergraduate work should be permitted in a postgraduate course?

Such issues may be considered rare given the relatively small number of students who take diploma courses. However, the questions show the problems that occur at other levels. For example, how can we answer questions about doctoral training, doctoral standards and what constitutes doctoral work? Many people may feel that these issues and questions can safely remain with the examiners of a doctoral thesis. It can be argued that the two independent examiners of a doctoral thesis are the gatekeepers for a discipline and have to evaluate the qualities of the thesis that has been submitted. But what criteria have been devised to evaluate a doctoral thesis? This is a question many disciplines, departments and institutions still have to address, given the doctoral standard is enshrined in numerous sets of university rules that state a PhD thesis shall consist of an original contribution to knowledge. Yet at doctoral level there is a further problem given the different ways in which a doctorate may be obtained: the traditional thesis, the taught doctorate (including course work and dissertation), the practice-based doctorate (where creative objects make up part of the submission), and the doctorate obtained on the basis of published work. The problem that remains is the way in which work of doctoral standard can be recognised.

Postgraduate education and training is available to students worldwide who, together with their sponsors, want to be able to evaluate the quality and standards available in the UK compared with other systems. We need a framework within which institutions and departments can effectively operate rather than shielding behind codes of good practice and meaningless bureaucratic mechanisms that have little to offer supervisors or theirstudents.

Robert Burgess chairs the UK Council for Graduate Education and is a pro-vice chancellor at the University of Warwick.

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