All or nothing: are vivas behind the times?

The system of examination for PhDs in the UK is a “scandal”, a conference on postgraduate issues heard last week.

October 25, 2012

Ron Barnett, emeritus professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said that the way the UK system employs the “viva voce” - the assessment of a doctoral thesis led by an external examiner - is “way behind the rest of the world”.

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

Professor Barnett said that the Quality Assurance Agency’s new guidance on research degrees, published in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education in June, does not properly address the concerns.

Janet Bohrer, assistant director for standards, quality and enhancement at the QAA, said that the body, which provides institutions with principles of good practice, has received other similar comments and will look into the matter.

Ms Bohrer told the conference that the QAA will address whether it could work with the Higher Education Academy to highlight the issue.

Professor Barnett later told Times Higher Education that he believes the system should more closely mirror the process for taught postgraduate students, with academics from the host institution making a recommendation on the validity of the thesis, prior to the viva.

“Sharing responsibility for judging a thesis would remove the vulnerability of students and keep safeguards with respect to quality. If the [internal examiners] make a recommendation then external examiners would have to have very good grounds for changing direction,” he said.

Otherwise, Professor Barnett believes that complaints will grow. “I am sure that it can’t be far off before we have a cascade of research students, who feel that their efforts have been unfairly treated in the viva, taking universities to court,” he said.

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