Penalties will kill off originality

November 21, 2003

Putting pressure on PhD students to complete theses in four years is misguided, insists Anthony Smith

The funding councils have proposed that unless 70 per cent of full-time students at any higher education institution complete their theses in four years, the funding of that institution will be severely reduced.

This procrustean model of PhD research, taken from the natural sciences, is to be applied irrespective of discipline or type of research. It takes no account of the different nature of theses or of the needs of students in the humanities and social sciences. Quite apart from the difficulty of formulating an original thesis, there are frequent problems of access to materials, of additional skills to be learnt - from archival skills to ethnographic techniques - and of an often-vast specialist literature to be mastered. Given the very different subject matter of such theses, the process of research is also one of maturation, which inevitably takes more time and requires greater experience. This is especially the case if a measure of originality and scholarship is required, which has always been the lodestar of a PhD thesis.

There are also practical considerations. If the four-year rule becomes a requirement, higher education institutions will be increasingly locked in conflicts with the funding councils over who to include and how they are to be counted.

My experience as a supervisor, especially of overseas students, has taught me the importance of things such as family background and health.

Inevitably, the councils will be drawn into a whole range of arguments with institutions and supervisors over matters of suspension, illness, extra skills and hence time, access to materials and the like.

They must ask themselves whether the benefits of the four-year rule outweigh the costs involved in expending time, energy and money on case-by-case appeals. The extension of bureaucracy that this will require, and the likely reactions of harassed supervisors and students need to be carefully balanced.

Special considerations apply where overseas students are involved. Not only must they adapt swiftly to a new cultural and academic environment, their level of English language must be adequate to the challenge of PhD communication.

Supervisors are often involved in editing overseas students' language and style, and this problem will be exacerbated if they are to be subjected to the four-year rule. This is an issue to which the councils appear not to have given much thought, especially in view of the huge costs for overseas students of working for a PhD.

Finally, there is the cost to the PhD itself. The funding councils should ask themselves whether their diverse stated requirements for originality of scholarship, professional research training and transferable skills, including a stint of teaching, can be achieved in four years in every discipline.

They do not appear to have evaluated the impact of the research councils' sanctions policies on the submission rates of research council-funded students. If the four-year rule is imposed on all students, there is a danger that, in their desire to pass the finishing post in time, students will have to submit less original and lower calibre work.

Rather than pushing through such damaging measures by administrative fiat, is it not time for the funding councils to listen to what the researchers and teachers in the field are saying, rather than laying down ex cathedra requirements that cannot be met unless the standard of the PhD itself is to be degraded and its basic criterion of an original contribution to knowledge is to become a dead letter? Otherwise, they may find that students will look to overseas competitors.

Anthony D. Smith is professor of ethnicity and nationalism in the government department at the London School of Economics.

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