Local difficulties: are UK PhDs really second-rate?

HEC told of industry's complaints over quality, but MP rebuffs 'lazy' views. Elizabeth Gibney writes

July 12, 2012

British PhDs are not up to internationally competitive standards, according to responses to a consultation by the Higher Education Commission's inquiry into the future of postgraduate education.

Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education and a member of the inquiry, said that a number of submissions had been more critical of the quality of UK postgraduate provision than he had expected.

"Industrialists are telling us that quality - whatever they mean by it - is not necessarily up to the highest international standards," he told a workshop at the annual conference of the UK Council for Graduate Education on 3 July.

The commission, an independent body made up of 20 leaders from the education sector, the business community and political parties, received 54 submissions to its consultation. It also held evidence sessions in Westminster and at the Wellcome Trust and visited four university campuses.

Neil Viner, associate director of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, also told the conference that several reviews had flagged up evidence that the quality of UK PhDs was declining and students were not well prepared for employment beyond their studies. He said these were issues the council aimed to address through its centres for doctoral training.

"The International Review of Mathematical Sciences [2010] talked quite extensively about the lack of competitiveness internationally of [UK] PhDs. But it's about more than maths; it's been touched upon in a number of international reviews," he added.

Professor Whitty also said there were concerns that PhDs were still too narrow, despite efforts to expand the skill set that students graduate with.

"Something we didn't really anticipate was quite a strong push from a number of witnesses - scientists, economists, vice-chancellors and industrialists - that the PhD is still too narrow, with candidates knowing everything about a tiny area and not enough about the big picture," he said.

But commission member Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham, chairwoman of the All Party Parliamentary University Group and former professor of social policy at the Northumbria University, said there was a "certain laziness" about the criticism.

"There is a huge range of PhDs and PhD students, a lot delivering direct to industry and others contributing to the development of disciplines and knowledge in universities," she said.

Other conference delegates argued that the UK's strong record in publications and journal rankings, and postgraduate students' role in it, presented an important view of quality.

The quality of PhD provision was not highlighted as a major strand of the inquiry when it was established in February. But Dr Blackman-Woods said that the issue would be on its agenda, alongside funding and its relationship to undergraduate education, and engagement with businesses and employers.

In particular, the commission would look at proposals to create a state-backed loans system for postgraduates, added Professor Whitty.

He said he believed that of all the proposals put forward, the government was most seriously considering the ones submitted by Barclays and by Tim Leunig, chief economist at the Centre Forum thinktank.

The commission is expected to report in the autumn.


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