Katie Law reports from the annual meeting of postgraduate representatives
Lancaster University has become one of the first academic institutions to introduce systematic recording of PhD vivas, amid calls for a more regulated and transparent complaints system for research students.
The university has decided that the final grilling a research student faces to earn a doctorate must be recorded or take place in front of an independent observer.
Michael Seymour of the Postgraduate Studies Office at Lancaster told The Times Higher : "We want to reassure all the participants, students and examiners alike, that the viva process is both transparent and fair."
Lancaster's move was welcomed at the annual meeting of university postgraduate representatives at Coventry University last week.
Speaking at the conference, John Wakeford, director of the Missenden Centre, which runs seminars and courses for students and academic staff, said the plans to regulate the viva process would improve the system, which was plagued by inconsistencies and was potentially perilous to students.
"There are rarely rules available detailing how vivas should be held," Professor Wakeford told delegates representing postgraduate associations at 50 universities. "This can lead to serious problems for the student when anything goes wrong."
Professor Wakeford said it was increasingly common for PhD students to file complaints. "Failing a PhD is so public," he said. "It is catastrophic for the individual involved to fail after several years of study. It's not surprising that, if students feel anyone has been unfair, they then pursue a complaint."
Introducing more formal procedures for recording vivas will transform a system that has up to now been based on strict confidentiality.
If examiners decide not to pass a student, ideally this could lead to constructive advice for the student on how to improve their thesis and research.
But in extreme cases it could lead to a complete rewrite, resubmission or even the failure to award a PhD altogether.
At the moment, it would be difficult to tell whether a failed viva was the result of procedural inconsistencies on the behalf of the examiners rather than insufficient academic ability.
Dr Seymour stressed that the move by Lancaster to record vivas was to prevent such procedural inconsistencies.
He said: "The problem has not arisen at Lancaster. But it is only a matter of time before it does appear somewhere. We are trying to prevent people arriving at an inappropriate outcome on account of a defect in the way the procedures are applied."
A formal system of regulation and recording of vivas could also speed up the process of student appeals. Currently, complaints can stretch out for more than 12 months.
Dame Ruth Deech, the first independent adjudicator for higher education, told the conference that the new body for hand-ling student complaints would strive to reduce the time taken to address grievances: "Six months may be a short time to a university, but to students it can be crucial - they are waiting to move on, to apply for a job or a visa."
Taped records of vivas could also be used for more positive purposes, such as training, according to Professor Wakeford. He said: "Tapes of vivas could be helpful in preparing candidates and training PhD examiners."
Dr Seymour argued that universities should move towards a nationally agreed policy for PhD complaints.
He said: "I think we can agree a body of common practice that most people would find acceptable. This would protect the interests of everyone involved."