QAA targets PhD 'cronyism'

March 19, 2004

Claire Sanders looks at the potential impact of a new code of practice for research students, while two QAA committee members who are shaping the guidelines give their insights

.Universities will face a tougher funding regime for PhDs from next year, with academics expected to meet standards governing the way they supervise students. Departments may lose funding if they fail to meet regulations set out in a new code of practice for research degrees.

While political attention has focused on undergraduates, these developments are part of a quiet revolution that will usher in new quality and funding arrangements for PhD training. The reforms will be aired for the first time at a major conference on postgraduates on Thursday that will discuss trends in postgraduate education as a whole and research degrees in particular.

"There is a sense of anticipation in universities," said Janet Metcalfe, a speaker at the conference and director of the UK Grad Programme, a body that supports the professional development of postgraduate researchers.

Universities that do not comply with the Quality Assurance Agency code of practice could have funding withdrawn. "The code will affect everyone involved in postgraduate research degrees from the research student, through supervisory teams to the universities, funding and research councils," Dr Metcalfe said.

But the very mention of the QAA alarms many academics. Stephen Rowland, professor of higher education at University College London, said: "I fear the dead hand of the QAA and the imposition of a one-size-fits-all model on research students. I have a deep sense of foreboding."

Others argue that the new code is vital to protect students - and their supervisors - across the sector. Tim Brown, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said: "The code will end cronyism in departments. Students will at last be clear about what they can expect in the way of support from their university."

Howard Green, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, who is on the QAA committee set up to draft the code, said: "The code will raise standards and will be something universities can work with - although some will find it challenging."

Dr Metcalfe and Professor Green were consultants on a 2002 Higher Education Funding Council for England report by Roland Levinsky, vice-chancellor of Plymouth University, on improving standards on postgraduate research degree programmes. The report outlines a framework of minimum standards, most notably that new supervisors should undergo training, that supervision should be provided by a supervisory team and be subject to independent review.

It also says that research students should maintain progress reports and have access to a training programme. It is expected that many of these standards will be incorporated in the QAA code.

"The emphasis on supervisory teams and access to training raises issues for very small departments and feeds into fears about research concentration," Dr Metcalfe said. "What the recommendations have done is highlight issues that have long been there and allowed a proper debate on how small departments can effectively support research students."

The Levinsky report found that of the 129 institutions awarding at least one doctorate in 2000, 25 per cent were awarded by just five institutions.

It highlights the growth of new types of PhD and the rapid expansion in areas without a tradition of PhD training, such as the creative arts. "The range of research degrees, together with part-time and full-time modes of study, is increasing student choice whilst making it increasingly difficult to define the PhD programme," it says.

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research and knowledge transfer at Hefce, said: "The Levinsky report shows that the support research students gets is pretty patchy. We have consulted on threshold standards twice and found unanimous support for quality standards."

Hefce puts £250 million into postgraduate research education. The money goes through three funding streams. Mr Thirunamachandran said: "The funding of postgraduate research education has been sandwiched between undergraduate education and research activity. It needs proper recognition and must not be treated as an add-on."

The funding council has just commissioned a report to look at how best to bring together the different funding streams. The new money will go to universities as a single and clearly identified stream within the block grant.

Professor Green said: "The key point to understand is that the pot will not be any bigger. So how will Hefce decide who gets funding? There were plans to link this funding to the research assessment exercise rating, but that was dropped. There are also serious questions to be answered about how to fund postgraduate research education in departments that have good links to industry but do not bring in Hefce money."

As well as funding issues, the new developments raise questions about the nature of PhDs. In 2002, the Roberts report for the Treasury on the supply of scientists criticised the near-exclusive focus in some universities on research projects. It said this hampered the development of key skills needed in academic employment and beyond. He called for training in transferable skills.

Professor Rowland said: "The Roberts and Levinsky reports are part of a trend. In the past, the purpose of the PhD was to make an original contribution to knowledge. Now the emphasis is on transferable skills for the world of work, but without a proper clarification of what these transferable skills are. Before new codes are introduced, we need a debate on what the PhD is for."

The conference "Postgraduate Education: Trends, challenges and future directions" is supported by Universities UK, the UK Grad Programme and The Times Higher .

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

FACT FILE

  • English universities in 2003-04 registered 49,000 home and European Union postgraduate research students
  • Some 29,000 are full time and 20,000 part time
  • Three-quarters of postgraduate research students are in 35 universities.

Source: Hefce

WHAT WILL THE CODE OF PRACTICE REALLY MEAN?

Susan Bassnett
Professor of translation and comparative cultural sudies, Warwick University

"This code of practice is crucial because it is linked to funding. This creates tension. I have attended conferences where the code has caused heated debate.

"Many deans of postgraduate studies are outraged that they are being called to account in this way. But they don't understand that the cronyism that exists in departments makes it hard for students to complain.

If the head of department is the supervisor's mate, and if there is no clear complaints procedure, then the student is stuck.

"Under the visitorial system, it was hard for students to complain. Now that the office of the independent adjudicator is in place, I expect to see more complaints. Research students, no longer just interested in progressing down the academic route, need skills to allow them to become leaders and managers elsewhere. Supervisors need to be trained to do that."

Tim Brown
General secretary, National Postgraduate Committee

"This code of practice is crucial because it is linked to funding. This creates tension. I have attended conferences where the code has caused heated debate.

"Many deans of postgraduate studies are outraged that they are being called to account in this way. But they don't understand that the cronyism that exists in departments makes it hard for students to complain.

If the head of department is the supervisor's mate, and if there is no clear complaints procedure, then the student is stuck.

"Under the visitorial system, it was hard for students to complain. Now that the office of the independent adjudicator is in place, I expect to see more complaints. Research students, no longer just interested in progressing down the academic route, need skills to allow them to become leaders and managers elsewhere. Supervisors need to be trained to do that."

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