The slow road: where PhD success comes late, if at all

Liverpool John Moores and Bedfordshire fall short in delivering results. Paul Jump reports

July 22, 2010

The universities with the lowest PhD qualification rates are identified in new figures detailing completions.

Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Bedfordshire come off worst in an analysis of the data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which published a series of tables listing the percentage of full-time doctoral students who began their courses in the years 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03 and who had qualified within seven years. Separate tables set out the proportion of part-time students who began in 1999-2000 and qualified within 10 years.

Each university is assigned a variable "benchmark" figure: an average pass rate adjusted according to the profile of its students. They are also given a "significance indicator" (SI) where Hefce deems their performance to vary significantly from the benchmark.

Liverpool John Moores received the most negative SIs - six, followed by Bedfordshire, which received five. Both universities received negative SIs for every category in which figures were listed.

Liverpool John Moores' worst pass rate for full-time home and European Union students was for the class of 2001-02, only 34 per cent of whom qualified within seven years, against a benchmark of 78 per cent.

Just 10 per cent of full-time international students recruited that year qualified, against a benchmark of 75 per cent. Liverpool John Moores was also cited for substandard performance in 2007, when Hefce last released similar figures.

Diana Burton, pro vice-chancellor of academic enhancement at Liverpool John Moores, said measures taken since 2007 had led to improved completion rates. She admitted, however, that the university "needs to work harder" to implement the measures "robustly and systematically".

Bedfordshire's worst performance for full-time home and EU students was also in 2001-02, when just 30 per cent qualified. This improved to 35 per cent the following year; in both cases the benchmark was 75 per cent. Just 15 per cent of home and EU part-time students qualified within 10 years, against a benchmark of 52 per cent.

Andrew Slade, pro vice-chancellor of research and enterprise at Bedfordshire, noted that a large proportion of his institution's students also held down "a challenging job".

He said recent data showed that Bedfordshire was delivering "hugely improved" qualification rates that would "take another year or so to come through in the Hefce data".

De Montfort University and the University of Salford both received four negative SIs, while the University of Derby and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine both received three.

Picking up two apiece were the universities of Brighton, Huddersfield, Plymouth and Westminster along with City University London, Goldsmiths, University of London, and Birkbeck, University of London.

Goldsmiths' results included a pass rate of just 30 per cent for the full-time international class of 2002-03, against a benchmark of 69 per cent.

A spokesman said Hefce's figures did not take account of the relatively high number of Goldsmiths students who suspended their studies temporarily for professional or personal reasons. He said extra emphasis had recently been given to supporting research students, while the time limit for completion had been tightened.

Fewer positive than negative SIs were awarded by Hefce.

The highest number - four - went to the University of Cambridge. Other universities that consistently exceeded their benchmark included Imperial College London, the University of Liverpool, King's College London and the universities of Leeds and Oxford.

All positive SIs went to Russell Group and 1994 Group universities except one for the University of Bradford (a member of the University Alliance), where 95 per cent of the full-time 2001-02 international cohort qualified, against a benchmark of 76 per cent.

Hefce's accompanying notes to the tables stress that there is no link between qualification rates and funding. SIs should, it says, be seen as "an invitation to the institution to investigate possible causes for the differences that have been identified".

Hefce also reserves the right to raise concerns with institutions in private. "Where we remain concerned, we may subsequently ask the Quality Assurance Agency to investigate," it adds.

Doctoral highs and lows: a look at PhD pass rates
Slow starters: universities with most bad marks
 Number of negative significance indicators
1 Liverpool John Moores University 6
2 University of Bedfordshire 5
%3D3 De Montfort University 4
%3D3 University of Salford 4
%3D5 University of Derby 3
%3D5 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 3
%3Cb%3EPercentage of full-time home and EU students qualifying within seven years%3C/b%3E%3Cbr /%3E(Starting in 2002-03. Excludes specialist schools)
 Benchmark% qualifying
Best performers
1 Imperial College London 8290
%3D2 University of Bristol8088
%3D2 University of Nottingham8288
%3D4 University of Cambridge8187
%3D4 University of Liverpool8187
%3D4 University of York 8187
Worst performers
1 University of Bedfordshire 7535
2 University of Derby 7340
3 Liverpool John Moores University 7744
%3D4 Manchester Metropolitan University 7545
%3D4 University of Salford 7545

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