Grade of error on supervision

July 19, 1996

While I share David Taplin's (THES, July 12) concerns about the quality of doctoral education, he is mistaken to suggest that the report which I and my colleagues prepared for the United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education endorses his proposition concerning the quality of such education in research assessment exericse rated 4 and 5 departments.

Apart from the fact that we have no non-anecdotal evidence to support his claim that 4 and 5 rated departments do provide excellent supervision - some undoubtedly do, some may not - there is much more to delivering quality at the doctoral level than is measured by the RAE. Our report lays out what this involves in some detail, and nowhere does it make a link to RAE grading.

Nor, as I read the Harris report, does that document suggest that only 4 and 5 rated departments can supervise doctoral students. Its inevitably controversial proposal that a part of the government funding for doctoral students might be limited to the stronger research departments has distracted attention from its subsequent, and more important recommendation that all postgrad funding should eventually be restricted to institutions that observe a code of practice for postgraduate education.

The elements for such a code of practice are outlined in our report and will, I hope, be of some value in helping to establish a national framework for quality assurance in this area.

Michael Harloe Office of Research and European Liaison University of Essex David Taplin professes "considerable concern" about satisfactory supervision for doctoral students.

The Harris review has excellent suggestions concerning the organisation of PhD programmes, with respect to overall supervision from inception to final assessment.

These are being implemented at a number of universities, both old and new.

It is not clear, however, why Taplin assumes that 4 or 5 in the Research Assessment Exercise guarantees such quality research supervision.

Have the highest-rated department/units been the foremost in supervision reform? Do the most active researchers necessarily make the most committed and successful supervisors? Should collectively assessed RAE ratings, alone, determine which individuals are outstanding in both research and research supervision?

Such, and similar, hard questions, are not addressed in Taplin's airy evocation of "my experience".

So is Taplin mainly concerned with postgraduate supervision in his recommendations to the Dearing committee, generously now shared with THES readers, or is he more dedicated to shoring up the position of already established researchers at secure institutions?

In short, isn't it he who is "missing the point for political reasons"?

Dennis Brown Department of humanities and education University of Hertfordshire

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