A higher calling

Renate Simpson has employed 'outstanding detective work' in her lifelong study of postgraduate education

October 8, 2009

While many academics boast admirable accomplishments in their fields, few can match Renate Simpson's efforts in combining study and pitching in for the war effort.

The 85-year-old, who has just written a history of the PhD, studied at the London School of Economics until she was evacuated from the capital during the Blitz, when she moved to Cambridge, combining her studies with organising farm camps on behalf of the National Union of Students. Recalling her student days, Ms Simpson said: "There were rules but we were quite free to live our lives and were allowed to go to any lecture at either university - LSE or Cambridge - which was quite something."

Although she did not continue on to a PhD herself, her university experience left her with a lifelong fascination with postgraduate study, prompting her, much later in life, to write what Harold Silver, professor of education at the University of Plymouth, described as "outstanding detective work" charting the rise of the PhD in Britain.

In The Development of the PhD Degree in Britain, 1917-1959 and Since: An Evolutionary and Statistical History in Higher Education, Ms Simpson uses historical and statistical data to create a thorough compendium on the topic. "It's a very important subject because it is still the key to going into academia and higher jobs. That gateway is important," she said.

The book addresses issues that have long troubled academia, including that of PhD pass rates, providing a section devoted to completion rates by department, gender and other factors. It also considers why arguments about PhD assessment and supervision have bubbled along for decades. Ms Simpson's professional interest in the doctorate began when she took a research post at the University of Essex in the early 1960s, where she stayed until her husband, Arthur, took a job overseas in 1968.

For six years she lived in Cuba and the Philippines, publishing papers on the history of higher education in both countries, before returning to England in 1974.

Upon her return, she co-authored, with Ernest Rudd, The Highest Education: A Study of Graduate Education in Britain, which was published in 1975.

A lack of available statistical data on the history of the PhD subsequently prompted her to trawl the archives of seven universities to fill in the gaps.

Richard Aldrich, emeritus professor of the history of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said her latest book was "not only a record of the past but also has the potential to impact on present and future policies in respect of higher degrees".

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