King's College London is clear that its remarkable success in getting its PhD students to complete their doctorates in good time is down to two things: the quality of the students it accepts and the rigorous training programmes and support structures provided for its "excellent" supervisors.
King's College managed to ensure that 92 per cent of its PhD intake in 1999 2000 had completed by 2005-06, putting it at the top of the table of research degree qualification rates by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, published this week.
The results, based on percentages of home and European Union research degree students who completed inside seven years, show huge variability between universities - from King's to Liverpool John Moores University, where just 26 per cent qualified in time.
"You have to choose students who can complete," Phil Whitfield, vice-principal for students at King's College, said. "We realised about a decade ago that we should be doing rather better, and that if it was taking students more than three years plus a year to write up we were failing them. So we began taking it seriously at college level."
The university also has training programmes for supervisors and a "head of graduate studies" in each of its nine schools. Hogs, the group of heads, provides a forum to disseminate good practice.
Commenting on its poor result, Liverpool John Moores argued that the majority of its postgraduate students did complete, though outside the Hefce timescale.
"LJMU identified [it] as an area requiring urgent action around 18 months agoa We know that we have the right policies and procedures in place. The problem is we haven't implemented them robustly enough," said Andy Young, director of research.
He said the university was tightening recruitment procedures to ensure that all applicants knew the timescale, improving training for students and supervisors, and making student pro - gress reports more rigorous.
Brighton University ranked second from the bottom. But Andrew Lloyd, the chair of the university's research degrees committee and dean of the faculty of science and engineering, stressed the data had to be considered in a historical context, as Brighton had improved its policies over the seven years.
He said different universities had different methods of return that "may have led to a distortion.
Our performance is much more consistent with the sector."
Hertfordshire University said new research degree regulations had been introduced in 2004, which saw more frequent progression assessment. "As the first cohort are finishing, this is beginning to have a positive impact on qualification rates," a spokes person said. The Open University also expected rates to improve as new initiatives bore fruit.
Southampton University scored highly, with qualification rates for home students second only to those of King's College.
Bill Wakeham, the vicechancellor, said the result re - flected the "great importance" the university attached to training postgraduate research students and the commitment of staff to careful supervision. "Our individual schools have a policy of supporting their research students, and many have invested significantly in providing them with high-quality facilities," he said.
The data exclude those enrolled part time, those that have switched from part time to full time or vice versa. The Quality Assurance Agency last year reviewed PhD completions across the sector and concluded that all universities were making satisfactory progress. Hefce said the agency would use the information in its future institutional reviews.