Radical part-time PhD plan fails to impress

March 3, 2000

Fear of dumbing down has blighted Cambridge University's decision to offer part-time PhDs for the first time. A professor has complained that the plan is "grudging", with "dismaying" elements, writes Phil Baty.

From 2001, Cambridge will offer a pilot part-time route to becoming a doctor of philosophy, a master of science or a master of letters in a few institutions. The governing councils and general board said in a joint report that the move was needed to widen access to postgraduate education, and would bring educational, economic and social benefits to those in industry and the professions.

At the moment, Cambridge is the only United Kingdom university without part-time PhDs.

But a working group's report on part-time degrees, discussed in senate last week, revealed widespread objections from within Cambridge, with some fearing a threat to academic standards. The majority of those who responded to consultation believed that a satisfactory part-time version of a Cambridge research degree was feasible, "although many did so with qualifications and reservations".

These concerns led the working group to set rigid conditions. Some institutions and colleges do not wish to be involved. Therefore, "there would be no expectation or requirements that every faculty, department and college should be involved with it".

The part-time PhDs should not be perceived as a cheaper means of obtaining a Cambridge doctorate so fees must be the same, and the standard must be "identical to that applied to the PhD degree through the full-time residential route".

David Dumville, professor of palaeography and cultural history, broadly welcomed the report. "But its tone is hesitant, not to say grudging at times," he told the senate. "The working group seems to have missed an opportunity for some radical thinking."

Professor Dumville objected to "excessively severe non-academic entrance requirements" and plans to block entry to anyone who does not have specific backing from their employers.

Postgraduate student Louisa Marinaccio strongly objected to the working group's decision to allow faculties, departments and colleges to opt out of the scheme.

"Perhaps the university is not really interested in increasing access. Perhaps this is just one more box that the university wants to check off on a government form The university must wholeheartedly embrace the programme by offering it in a wide range of departments and colleges."

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