So when is a PhD not a PhD?

September 1, 1995

Dr Piercemuller, I see, takes his duties as the supervisor of PhD students as seriously as he does his other responsibilities! He is, I trust, an isolated survivor from an earlier epoch. If one thing is already clear as the HEFCE/CVCP review of postgraduate education gets fully under way, it is that the issue of the quality and, perhaps even more important, the standard of postgraduate qualifications is firmly on our agenda - placed there by many of those at home who employ our graduates and, crucially, by many of those overseas who determine where their most able students should go to advance their education.

In the case of taught Master's degrees, the principal concern appears to be about nomenclature rather than quality, given that current audit and assessment procedures typically encompass provision of this type. It has been pointed out forcefully that the word "postgraduate" is, as traditionally defined, a category based simply on chronology rather than content, that is, a programme followed (typically) by someone who already holds a bachelor's degree. Any necessary distinctions can be made by designating the qualification obtained in certain cases as a "postgraduate diploma" and in other cases as a Master's degree. Implicitly at least, this distinction, it seems to me, has been based on the level of the work done, so that only genuinely post-Bachelor's work would lead to an MA or MSc.

What then should we make of, say, a conversion course where a graduate in mathematics, following a programme consisting entirely of final-year undergraduate modules in finance, is awarded an MSc in that subject if successful? Should there be more general rules of classification explicitly spelled out?

Then there is the distinction between taught and research degrees. Most active researchers appear to share the view that research students are appropriate as one measure of research volume, and I am inclined to agree. But the justification for this has to be that the individual concerned is genuinely contributing to the research output of the department in question. How true is this likely to be of first-year graduate students? Is it possible to distinguish consistently between those Master's students, clearly the great majority, who are principally (or solely) taught, and those few who make a personal contribution to research in their first year? Would it not be safer and fairer to say that only research students in their second and third years should count as R-volume drivers?

And finally, perhaps the most difficult of the questions raised with my group so far. Even when a university has in place a proper quality assurance mechanism for its research students, with explicit guidance, back-up supervisors, proper appeal mechanisms and the like, how (several overseas governments have asked) can we be sure that a PhD awarded is of the traditional standard? At the end of the day, perhaps as few as one internal and one external examiner have the responsibility for ensuring that no-one leaves a British university with a PhD which would not meet the standards laid down elsewhere in the United Kingdom or in other comparable university systems. Clearly, not everyone believes this to be sufficient - but is there any appropriate alternative?

Any wide-ranging review is inevitably influenced by the contemporary climate of opinion in which it is situated. But I had certainly not expected issues relating to levels, quality and standards to emerge so quickly and so forcefully as being central to this review of postgraduate education.

Martin Harris is vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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