Postgraduate study under the microscope

Blog by Professor Roger Lewis, Yorkshire Universities

Postgraduate (PG) study is under the microscope. This is perhaps the last largely unregulated area of university activity; compared to undergraduate study, much that happens is out of sight.

Issues include funding; the attention HEIs give to their PG students (including the quality of research supervision) and the standard of the PhD (the ‘gold standard’).

Affordability of PG study to students is the most obvious issue; this applies particularly to students on taught courses rather than those studying for PhDs, who have access to studentships funded by charities and the research councils. Burdened with debt repayments, are graduates less likely to go on to further formal study? This issue was – surprisingly – largely ignored by the Browne review (which gave just one page to PG education). Recently there have been scholarship schemes, including one in our region (involving Leeds, Sheffield and York) which was five times over-subscribed. There is as yet no comprehensive framework for funding.

This raises the question of who should pay. That students should contribute seems obvious given the likely financial benefit (quoted as £200k above graduate earnings). PG study is a passport to (some) jobs and attractive to students who want to mark themselves out from the crowd. 

Employers benefit from more highly skilled workers – and so does the state, which needs to remain competitive globally. Other contributors might include alumni, private donors, financial institutions (in devising new loan schemes) – and (interestingly) HEIs themselves (showing that they put their money where their mouth is). 

Another issue is how well HEIs look after students. Isolation is a recurrent theme – and the stress and anxiety this can lead to. There are other questions: how well do HEIs prepare PG students for employability? What opportunities are there for work experience and appropriate careers advice? Or do academics resist such activities as ‘molly coddling’?

What about the supervisory process itself? Do students see their supervisor frequently enough? Do they get quality time with a carefully-set agenda? What about induction arrangements? Are PG students’ expectations explored? Is motivation discussed? Are warning signs of students in difficulty picked up and acted on? Doctoral training partnerships offer a model for dealing with some of these issues, e.g. providing students, in cohorts, with opportunities for peer contact and developing supervisors beyond their narrowly ‘academic’ role.

Finally, what about the standard of PG degrees – and especially that of the PhD? In an article in The Higher (20 Feb, pp35-38) two examiners give an alarming account of their experience. A ‘significant’ number of students they examined did not deserve their award but – for non-academic reasons – were nevertheless passed. The authors are ‘distinctly uneasy about the state of doctoral studies’ and put problems down to universities’ wish to recruit without necessarily considering their capacity to support such studies.

Given the profile of PG study and the many issues it faces, YU is considering setting up a network to explore the possibility of collaborative initiatives within its membership, working with others such as the White Rose Partnership.

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