Neither England’s new regulator nor the new UK-wide body for research is likely to make PhD students a key priority, according to the head of an organisation that represents graduate students.
This means that there is a danger that they could “fall through the cracks” between the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation, while the level of scrutiny in the quality of postgraduate programmes that currently exists could be at risk, said Rosemary Deem, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education.
Universities and the research community need to do “a lot of thinking” about how to maintain the quality of postgraduate education in the face of the changes, she added.
But the OfS chief executive said that its “unwavering focus” will be on protecting the interests of all students and that it will work closely with UKRI to “ensure policy coherence”.
The Higher Education and Research Act is the most significant change to the sector’s governance in 25 years. The act, which was passed in April, paved the way for the creation of a new regulator, the OfS, and a new organisation, UKRI, that brings together for the first time the research councils, Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Professor Deem said that she believed that the main focus of the OfS will be on undergraduate students, whereas UKRI would have the most “pressing” task of maintaining funding for the research base.
“So research students, whilst not unimportant, are not top of their priority list in either case,” said Professor Deem, who is also the dean of the doctoral school at Royal Holloway, University of London.
“Under the new arrangements, UKRI will presumably still have some responsibility for researchers and I am still trying to find out what that responsibility consists of,” she said, adding that she has a meeting scheduled with the chief executive of UKRI, Sir Mark Walport, next month.
“[The OfS] are going to be a regulatory body, so unlike Hefce, they are not going to be partly a regulator, partly a buffer between the sector and government,” she added.
“The danger is that [research students] fall through the cracks…The sector has to do a lot of thinking about how we can ensure that the quality assessment arrangements for postgraduate students remain as strong as they have been, under the new system.”
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the OfS, said that the organisation’s responsibilities will include postgraduate students and that there was an ongoing consultation into how the OfS will operate.
“We will listen to all the views we receive when considering how best to implement the new regulatory framework. Two things are clear though. Firstly, the Office for Students’ unwavering focus will be on protecting the student interest – both undergraduate and postgraduate. Secondly, we will work very closely with UKRI to ensure policy coherence,” she said.
A UKRI spokesman said: “We have no current plans to change the present arrangement where PhD students that are funded by an individual research council are the responsibility of that council.”