Rules that rob our research

March 8, 2002

Funding bodies should encourage doctoral students to pursue flexible cutting-edge study, not tie them down with red tape, argue Diana Leonard and Kelly Coate

Living on a meagre research council student grant is not easy, but it is a sacrifice most postgraduates are prepared to make because of their love of their subject, their desire to make "an original contribution to knowledge" and the training they receive. So how devastating to have such a studentship abruptly withdrawn. Yet this is what happened to one of our students after she notified the Economic and Social Research Council in her annual review submission that she had changed her research focus.

The ESRC argued that her studentship involved a contract to do a particular project. The papers she had signed and the studentship handbook had made this clear. Unless the topic had become unviable, she should have stuck with it and/or sought permission to change her topic "in advance of the change and certainly prior to the decision to switch".

As her supervisors, we were stunned. So too were other experienced academics we talked to. Very few were aware of this rule or knew when or why the council's practice had changed. From our perspective, the student was only doing what we would encourage her to do: review, rethink and revise. Her research questions were much the same, but her personal circumstances and her intellectual progress had led her to alter the site of her fieldwork - in this case from further education to higher education and from studying teacher training to the work of experienced practitioners. She informed her funder at the first appropriate formal occasion, but did not ask permission.

So what does the ESRC's action imply about the terms and conditions of their PhD studentships? Apparently they regard them as having the same sort of contractual obligations as funding for senior researchers on much larger projects and higher salaries. Rather than just awarding a student a grant as a way of recognising and supporting an outstanding candidate who wants to pursue original research with experienced supervisors in approved universities, studentships now involve a contract to undertake a particular piece of work, in a specified time, for a salary of £8,000 a year plus fees. Deviate from that and you risk the consequences.

On the other hand, the research councils continue to regard a research degree as a training exercise, as at best an apprenticeship piece of research. The same perspective also runs through the policy advice produced in the past decade - the 1996 Harris report, the 1997 Dearing report and the 1993 and 2000 white papers on science, engineering and technology. All have made clear that they are centrally concerned with ensuring research students are given a "generic" training in research to ensure their future employability, and with decreasing PhD completion times and increasing completion rates. None has stressed the quality of the research itself.

To these ends, all seven councils, led by the ESRC, have blacklisted any university that does not ensure that at least 60 per cent of council-funded students submit within four years. They have supported students for three years' full-time study only in universities that ensure most of the first year of full-time doctoral study is devoted to taught courses in research methodology and other transferable skills. From next year, the ESRC wants institutions to provide an approved one-year research masters degree followed by three years research. Their influence, however, goes further.

Sara Delamont, Paul Atkinson and Odette Parry say in their study of the natural and social sciences, The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School , that the rules have been applied to the nearly 6,000 students who start research for a higher degree in the economic and social sciences each year, and not just to the 550 of them who have ESRC awards. We know from personal experience as a supervisor and student in receipt of such a grant just what intense pressure there is to finish "on time", because failure to do so will not only hamper one's own career, but also those of would-be future students at the institution. But we also know more systematically, from a recent survey for the University of London's review of its doctorates, that there is a widespread belief that the scope of PhD research is diminishing.

While a successful PhD thesis must and still does constitute "an original contribution to knowledge", respondents from the university's constituent colleges agree that students are now choosing topics that are viable within the time limit, rather than making a choice solely on academic grounds.

How different things could look if research students in the United Kingdom were recognised as important knowledge producers. Would that Universities UK and the UK Council for Graduate Education followed the Directors and Deans of Graduate Studies in Australia, whose submission to the 1997 West inquiry stressed that higher degree research students produce about 60 per cent of university research. Academic careers once promised the ideal of a lifetime developing liberal criticism, with the PhD being the necessary apprenticeship. Despite the opposition of many supervisors, research that challenged the status quo was initially able to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s largely in doctoral theses. Many key feminist books from Kate Millett and Ann Oakley onwards, for example, started as PhD theses - as did the key monographs in many other fields.

In the 1980s, every single one of the (few) projects on sexuality was being done for a PhD or, unfunded, for individual interest. In 1994, the entire mainstream British Sociological Association national conference was on the theme of sexuality and, thanks to the earlier research, the field had become so developed that this meeting could attract a greater number of papers than any previous annual meeting.

Although it seems reasonable for research councils to expect those in receipt of its funds to produce a thesis within a reasonable time limit, why should the ESRC set the parameters for the much larger number of students who are doing the degree for individual interest and to contribute to scholarship, and who are self-funding? And are we not in danger of driving out radical, challenging research when students are not only required to cut their (research) coat to fit their (time) cloth, but are also not supposed to change their minds once they have signed a grant contract?

Central direction by the research councils is generally defended in terms of ensuring students' future employability - and hence national competitiveness. But this is hard to sustain since the councils have next to no empirical evidence about why most people undertake doctorates, what they think of the experience, or how they (or their employers) use their PhDs after they gain them. The Higher Education Statistics Agency does not collect statistics on postdoctoral employment, and few, if any, universities have systematic information on alumni. There have been just a few occasional studies of employment in particular disciplines, for example by the Institute for Employment Studies at the University of Sussex. But we know especially little about the uses of a doctorate to overseas students and to those formerly domiciled in the UK who move abroad.

Our own student was lucky because she won an appeal. The ESRC agreed to continue her studentship when she demonstrated that it was "essentially the same project". But her knuckles were firmly rapped and her confidence severely shaken.

Diana Leonard is professor of sociology of education and gender and Kelly Coate is a research officer, at the Institute of Education, London. A Woman's Guide to Doctoral Studies by Diana Leonard is published by the Open University Press (2001).

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