Ask the panel

May 12, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I work for a department in a new university rated 3 in the last research assessment exercise. I have been approached by two students keen to pursue PhDs here. They will be self-funding. I am aware that in the future PhD students in departments rated 4 and above will benefit from greatly increased funding and general support. Given that this is a serious commitment of time and money for these students - should I encourage them to study elsewhere? Could the university discipline me for my honesty?

* Our panellist from Research Councils UK says: "I can only recommend openness and honesty. The students' expectations should be realistic from the outset.

"The Quality Assurance Agency's code of practice for assurance of standards in higher education regarding research degree programmes mentions this (at precepts nine and ten).

"I assume that you have a prospectus and that an agreement will be made with students at an early stage. This should include what resources and support are available in return for their investment in time and fees.

"I would hope that your department is aware of the resources necessary to properly support a PhD studentship and that you have planned how these will be provided. If you share this information, it will be for the students to weigh up their options."

She warns: "Some of the questions received by the research councils make us worry that students' expectations have been raised unrealistically by universities. For example, 'I was told you pay students, so can you send me the forms please?' comes up now and again - it is even posed to councils that don't have an application route."

She goes on: "It is likely the students would find out much of the relative benefits of studying in different departments during their time in the department. If recruited with partial or inaccurate information, they might even have a case for litigation. It is hard to see why your university would take a dim view of heading this off."

* Our panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "Although you're right that there will be a gradual reduction in funding for PhD departments rated below 4 in the 2001 RAE, the AUT does not believe that RAE scores represent the final word on the quality of research undertaken in departments. Therefore, to dissuade the students on this basis is far too simplistic.

"For example, the scores fail to pick up excellent lone scholars in non-4 rated arts/ humanities/social sciences and other non-lab based departments where there is no reason that the students would not be provided with proper PhD supervision.

"However, we, like the National Postgraduate Committee, would support the need for minimum numbers of other students and research-active staff to provide students with a suitable research environment."

She adds: "Most important, you should encourage the students to ask the necessary questions of the institution so that they are satisfied that they will be provided with the support and access to research excellence that they need. The institution should not take any action against you for honestly telling the students what the situation is."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "Unfortunately, it is not possible to give you a definitive answer regarding whether or not you will be disciplined as this will depend on particular issues surrounding the situation.

"However, provided that you adhere to universities' policies and procedures, encourage students to seek as much information for themselves as possible and ensure that any advice given is done so in a professional manner, it is unlikely that disciplinary measures will be taken."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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