Postgraduates are the "Cinderellas" of the UK university sector - ignored by the Government in its Higher Education Act and overlooked when it comes to career development, a conference heard this week.
Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North and chairman of the House of Common's Science and Technology Select Committee, told the National Postgraduate Committee's annual conference that the Government had focused on creating a market in higher education based exclusively on undergraduates paying different levels of tuition fees.
Dr Gibson said in a keynote speech to the conference on Thursday that little thought had been given to how top-up fees and increasing student debt would deter people considering whether to continue their studies after graduation. He said: "It will lead to fewer people doing postgraduate studies. I think universities realise this and that is why they are looking overseas. We are sailing into dangerous waters."
Many UK universities plan to increase postgraduate numbers as they are less of a financial drain on resources than undergraduates. Oxford University, for example, has said that postgraduate numbers could equal undergraduates as early as 2010.
But Dr Gibson said that despite the importance of postgraduates to universities financially, and the fact that they are crucial in supplying the academics of tomorrow, their voice was lost amid the clamour over undergraduates and university funding.
"Basically, postgraduates are the forgotten people. Where is the plan for postgraduate studies? Where are the plans for graduate schools?" he said.
Delegates attending the conference at Coventry University also heard that personal development planning (PDP) is getting a mixed response from postgraduates.
Surveys carried out by the NPC and the UK Grad Programme showed that half the respondents found the process helpful for time management and planning.
Others felt PDP was bureaucratic and "not worth the effort".
Four per cent of postgraduates met their supervisors weekly as part of their PDP programme compared with 47 per cent who met their supervisors to discuss career issues once a year. Although 92 per cent of respondents said they were using PDP, in reality the majority are simply reviewing progress in their research. Just over half also used it to log their reflections on their performance, less than a third used it as a medium to assess their skills and register their training needs and less than a fifth used it to plan their training.
Ellen Pearce, manager of the UKGP, said: "The findings reinforce (the feeling) that there is lots to do to make personal development meaningful and integral in the research environment."
Soapbox, page 14