Durham eyes postgrad market

June 30, 2006

University 'relies too heavily' on its popularity among undergraduates, reports Phil Baty

Durham University is to offer hundreds of new postgraduate places in a bid to rebalance its student population and improve its academic culture.

After accepting that it has in the past relied too heavily on its popularity among undergraduates - their numbers have doubled in the past two decades - Durham is planning to increase the proportion of postgraduate research students from 7 per cent of its student population to 11 per cent, adding at least 1,000.

The highlight of a series of initiatives to attract research students is a £35 million building programme to provide 1,000 new beds in college accommodation. The university hopes that the pastoral care and community spirit engendered by its college system will draw in more research students.

The city's first new college for 34 years, Josephine Butler College, will open to students this autumn. The college will eventually take up to 800 undergraduates and will free space to allow a "critical mass" of about 100 postgraduates in each of a handful of the university's 16 colleges, which have in effect become "freshers' ghettos".

A major extension to the exclusively postgraduate college, Ustinov, will also be opened in autumn, creating a residential community of about 1,200 postgraduates.

"There has been a sense that the undergraduate demand has been so strong that this has been seen to be our core business," said Phil Jones, deputy vice-chancellor. "We still want to nurture and keep investing in undergraduate provision, but we now need to grow our postgraduate population."

After doubling its undergraduate population to almost 12,000 in the past two decades, the proportion of postgraduates has fallen. The university's strategic plan for 2010 sets a target to increase postgraduate research numbers to 11 per cent of the student population, a hike of 4 per cent.

The university has 1,144 postgraduate research students (7.5 per cent of the population), and 2,510 taught postgraduates (16.4 per cent).

Professor Jones denied that the drive to recruit more full-fee paying postgraduates was a simple money-making initiative. He said it was not a reflection of the political climate following Oxford University's moves to shift its focus to postgraduates after deciding that it was too expensive to teach more, heavily subsidised undergraduates.

"We simply recognise that to be a research-led institution we need to increase numbers," he said. "Our vice-chancellor has said very clearly that we are not preferring postgraduates over undergraduates."

Matthew Andrews, director of Durham's graduate school, said that as well as promoting its college structure and high-quality accommodation, the university had improved the application process, launched an advertising campaign and, for the first time, begun attending recruitment fairs. It will hold its first postgraduate recruitment fair in November.

"We recognise that, in order to achieve our aims, the university must go out and try to get more applications and convert more into acceptances," he said.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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