Part-time majority

September 10, 2004

Issues affecting postgrads will be debated in London this week at the UK Grad Conference. Here, speakers discuss the trials of part-timers, international students and researchers with disabilities.

The PhD has been redefined since I was a full-time postgraduate student 18 years ago. It is no longer about the production of a thesis. Producing a trained researcher is the main aim. This has placed the emphasis on the PhD experience rather than on the intellectual product. Additionally, the structure of the experience has become homogenised, but homogenised around the experience of students able to study full time. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an "average" student. There are almost as many students studying part time and "writing up" (which often amounts to the same thing) as there are full-time students.

If the Government and other stakeholders are serious about lifelong learning and widening participation, they will have to start thinking about how to deal with a much more diverse research student population than that implied by recent policy direction. Policy is based largely on the stereotype of the young, full-time, funded student who is geographically mobile, without dependants, studying in a metropolitan area and intending to pursue a career as a full-time researcher or academic.

This is not the typical PhD student I (and many others) recognise. They are much more likely than in the past to be part time - either because they are in full-time work, retired, redundant or because they have dependants. They tend to be more mature, with significant life experience. They may even be academics. Increasingly, such PhD students are not producing the traditional "big book" thesis, but are pursuing professional doctorates.

What motivates them? Some want to become academics. Many more do not. Some are doing projects related to their employment. Others want to learn for the sake of learning. Some want to pursue a particular, often long-held, interest now that they have the time and opportunity. What are such people offered? Frequently it is little more than a dilution of what we offer full-time students. We say to them, "Here's what the full-timers do, how can you fit in?"

Part-time research students need recognition for what they are - the majority. It is time to plan the postgraduate system (both policy and process) around part-timers to see how best full-timers can fit in with them. The reorientation needs to be radical to take account of increasing student debt and to involve the provision of financial support for part-time study.

It needs to recognise that many part-time students have little choice about which institutions they study in. Geographically, circumstances constrain them. Funding policies need to reflect this and remove the link between student funding and irrelevant research assessment exercise scores that reduce opportunities to study.

It needs to recognise (as the revised Quality Assurance Agency code of practice begins to do) that the skills requirements of part-timers are different. It needs to recognise that part-time students need alternative types of provision and facilities. They do not congregate in the senior common room in the same way as full-timers.

We must recognise that part-time students can frequently define their own needs and may need persuading about why they should do things. One commented during my institution's consultation on the new QAA code: "Don't make me do something because someone thinks it's a good idea - show me why it's important for my PhD and, if it's important, make it part of the assessment criteria."

Higher education is getting better at widening participation and lifelong learning in respect of undergraduate studies, where it is now accepted that most students are in effect part time. If we think PhDs are a good thing, it is about time that policy and practice reflected the reality of today's research student body.

Alistair McCulloch is head of research at Edge Hill and also a member of the executive committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education. He writes in a personal capacity.

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