In September 2004, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), who are dedicated to ensuring academic quality in higher education released a new code of practice for research degrees. Over the past 8 months, NPC has had a vital role in bringing this new code together, where by two representatives played an important role in the working group of about 15 people. Further to this, NPC had drafted some of the sections on inductions, complaints and appeals as well as carefully monitoring other sections of the code.
So what does this mean for institutions and postgraduate representatives?
It means an awful lot for institutions and postgraduate representatives. Now the code has been released, it will mean that all institutions will need to implement their own codes of practice for research degrees in order to comply with the minimum requirements. Failure to do so will mean that institutions in England and Northern Ireland will have funding restrictions imposed upon them by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Department for Employment and Learning (DELNI) respectively. What will happen in Wales and Scotland is at present not determined, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) are still considering how they will use the code of practice. As has been indicated in a circular letter by HEFCE, the QAA will audit institutions from 2006/07 and there will also be monitoring of the success rate of research degrees in institutions. In the mean time, a one off survey will be carried out from 2005, where funding restrictions will begin.
As institutions are now re-implementing their codes of practice, postgraduate representatives will be required to play an important role to ensure that they are student focused, like the QAA code. NPCs involvement with QAA has been vital in ensuring a student focus in the resultant code. Therefore if you are a representative and not aware of what your institution is doing, then you may want to enquire. This will be vital in terms of communicating to your institution the underlying problems behind the delivery of research degree programmes.
So whats in it?
With in the code there are 9 sections, and here is a summary of what they involve and how postgraduate representatives should take interest in them.
- Institutional arrangements: This section is mainly regarding the administration and central organisation of implementing a code of practice and monitoring schools/faculties/departments in the process. This is largely a background to the whole code itself.
- Research environment: One important thing about undertaking a research degree is having access to a cognate group of researchers in the area. This can be difficult in some small institutions, or indeed in some very specialist subject areas where each researcher in a department can specialise in a significantly different area to that of other researchers. Therefore accessing a wider view on a research topic can have complications. In some subjects this is not so much a problem, where there are a wide range of researchers to consult. Where this is not the case, access to researchers in the area is required, and so some institutions or departments will need to ensure this.
- Selection, admission and induction of students: NPC played an important role in this section. It has to be asked whether the admissions process is secure and whether the supervisors are accepting students onto a research programme without enough due care and attention to see if they have what it takes. This section puts guards in place to ensure such ad-hoc admissions are avoided. As well as this, there are guidelines on the induction process, in terms of how well a student is being introduced to the subject. This considers inductions at institutional, departmental and supervisor to student level. Such care is needed at all levels to properly start a research programme. NPC was able to contribute a significant amount of input to this in terms of knowing how successful inductions can or cannot work at times.
- Supervision: This is one of the most controversial parts of the code, where it does insist that the student has at least one supervisor and that supervisors are trained to supervise. Also it requires supervisors to have the expertise in the subject area and not be overloaded with other responsibilities in order to properly supervise. Although the code does not insist on having more than one supervisor in a supervisory team (which can avoid problems of supervisors leaving, provide a second opinion and also help train supervisors) there is certainly a lot of pressure to involve more than one person in supervision. It is recognised that more than one supervisor in specialist areas can be hard to implement, but a mentor could be appointed in such situations and this is an important point to push for. NPC wants to see transparency in the supervision process, where by other people do need to be actively involved in order to identify any problems a student is having with a supervisor that can take place behind closed doors and not be resolved as early as possible before bigger problems snowball.
- Progress review: It is important to review progress regularly and plan ahead. Not only this but it is important to look over how a student is developing in their research and other skills. Some institutions have very successful progress review methods for this that help the student and supervisor to quickly see where things are going well or going wrong. However, some students and supervisors avoid the process, and see it as bureaucratic and just some record of progress should an appeal case or complaint arise. Such records are important, but without them showing direct benefit to the student and supervisor, they easily become an obstacle to get around.
- Development of research and other skills: This is a wide subject, to deliver training to a wide diversity of students, from recent graduates seeking career development through to already experienced professionals and even retired individuals. All have different training needs and if all are delivered the same training at graduate level, many are going to be frustrated. The diversity and culture of students needs to be considered carefully in order to deliver the appropriate training to develop each individual.
- Feedback mechanisms: Representation is important, and especially for postgraduates as NPC has always promoted. This code supports that all the more and it should enforce institutions to help in the process, where by there are effective feedback mechanisms, both local and central through which appropriate action can be taken on issues raised by postgraduate research students. This is another area where student representative bodies have a responsibility to take part and avail themselves to postgraduates as an independent body that can extend its remit to postgraduates. Obviously this will be a significantly different representation system to that of undergraduates and so needs careful attention.
- Assessment: All doctoral programmes have to be assessed, normally with a viva examination at the end. How the viva is conducted does vary across institutions. The code raises the question as to whether an independent chair in a viva is useful in terms of giving an impartial view as to the fairness of the examination when a student has failed or is asked to resubmit. Such problems can cause immense difficulties in appeal cases if there were no witnesses to see what went wrong in the examination and whether any mitigating circumstances could have affected the outcome. Institutions need to therefore consider carefully how they can monitor the assessment of research degrees.
- Student Representations (Complaints and Appeals): Not all students find supervisors to be a bunch of roses. Sometimes supervisors can be very domineering or cause great problems for the student that is impeding their progress and leading them down an incredibly dark track. Any student should proactively complain when they need to or be able to freely appeal should an examination or review of progress be unfair. It is very difficult if in the first instance the student has to complain to the academic next door who is close friends with the supervisor. Such a situation is obviously not impartial and is not going to help the student deal with their problems. This section of the code insists that the opportunity to complain to someone impartial is available and made well known to deal with difficulties before they go out of hand. Further to this, it does go hand in hand with a more transparent supervision process so that a student also has a more open environment to express their problems to another supervisor or mentor.
NPC will certainly be interested to hear more from students about how they find the code of practice working in their institutions, and what experiences they have of trying to ensure the postgraduate voice is heard in developing new codes of practice. If you have any questions about the code, please feel free to contact Tim Brown in firstname.lastname@example.org. While Tim was General Secretary, he was very involved in the working group and the drafting of the code throughout the 8 months taken in producing it.