Financial support for PhD supervision in universities could be among things in line for cuts by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the new chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education fears.
Rosemary Deem, who is also dean of the doctoral school and vice-principal for education at Royal Holloway, University of London, expressed concern that the £240 million Research Degree Programme funding – which supports universities with the costs of supervising doctorates and in encouraging the next generation of researchers – would be among streams that could be axed as BIS looks for savings in the coming years.
“If that money disappears, I think a lot more institutions might have to rethink their internal studentships, which are already challenged quite a bit by the fact that the research councils are increasingly requiring matched funding for their collaborative schemes,” she said in an interview with Times Higher Education.
And although the introduction of a loans scheme for PhD students appeared to solve a problem with some funding for doctorates, it could in fact pose a risk, Professor Deem warned. The proposed loans of up to £25,000 were “not enough” to support a student all the way through the three- to four-year qualification, she said.
“The funding thing is a big challenge. I think there is going to be a reduction [in PhD numbers], but at the same time we are trying to encourage widening participation…so you have got two different, competing trends.”
Another challenge is getting the voice of postgraduate education heard in the chatter surrounding the teaching excellence framework. “That is all around undergraduates,” Professor Deem said. “We also need to think about things like excellence in supervision [for postgraduates], which is even more difficult to define than excellence in teaching.”
Students are feeling the stress
Judging from her experience at Royal Holloway, Professor Deem is convinced that the incidence of mental health problems among research students is rising. “I deal with all the interruptions and extensions for research students in my institution, and talking to other people they have noticed the same thing: there is an increase in the number of students suffering from depression, anxiety and a number of other things.”
The reason for this, she suspects, is a combination of factors including greater awareness of mental health problems as well as specific issues that affect research students.
“We are better at spotting those things than in the past, and we are more responsive…it is not that they were not there before,” she explained. Pressures to finish a PhD before funding runs out may also play a part, she added. Many students outside the sciences take four years to complete, which means the final year is often unfunded, she said.
Then there is the worry of getting the thesis in, defending it and, for those planning an academic career, starting to publish. “Of course those things were always there, but as there are fewer jobs, people feel those things more intensely,” she said.
To mitigate these problems, institutions need to ensure that students have access to mental health services, and they must also “ease the transition” back to research after any health-related breaks. “If you don’t, the danger is that the student will then experience the same problems again. It is almost like people who have been away with depression or anxiety [are expected] to come straight back on day one and pick up where they left off, and sometimes that is quite difficult for people to do.”
Universities also need to “work harder” to encourage research students to get help when they need it. “We have got better at doing that with undergraduates, but I suspect that we haven’t put so much attention into doing that for research students,” she added.
In her term as chair of the UKCGE, Professor Deem hopes to look more closely at developments in postgraduate education in other European countries because she thinks that the UK can learn from things going on elsewhere.
“There is this perception that everything we do is better than other people”, even though this might not always be the case, she said. Many UK universities tend to take internationalisation “for granted” simply because they have high numbers of students and staff from overseas, she said. Some doctoral programmes in other countries, however, emphasise the need for students to collaborate and publish internationally and to spend time in another institution.
“Even though we have all these schemes from research councils and so on, the actual programmes that people study are not necessarily as coherent as some of the others that people study in mainland Europe,” she added.
One way of opening up the eyes of the postgraduate community to these initiatives is to invite more speakers from Europe to conferences on doctoral education in the UK, she said. In fact, Professor Deem hopes to hold the next UKCGE annual conference in Portugal for that purpose.