The Future Wellbeing of Postgraduate Communities

This paper was originally delivered to the Student Wellbeing in Higher Education Conference

To discuss the future wellbeing of postgraduate communities we need to find the appropriate context and so we must determine our current understanding of postgraduate wellbeing. I suggest, generally sppeaking, that the wellbeing of a postgraduate community depends upon the enthusiasm of its members to see themselves as a community of individuals with shared interests. Those interests may be realized, paradoxically, through deficiencies in provision in various quarters of the postgraduate education experience, and those common interests and concerns indicate, albeit defeasibly, the boundaries of tthe postgraduate community as a community. If the deficiencies are not addressed then the community would suffer in the longer term.

The health of the postgraduate community does not simply depend upon common objects of dissatisfaction for sharing grumbles, however. I presume a general thesis that pleasure experienced will enhance wwellbeing. It is precisely the pleasure in (particularly) research study that can be an additional focus of a healthy postgraduate community, institution-wide as well as departmentally based. But thhere are issues which typically concern the postgraduate student. The first issue is isolation: individual postgraduates often feel that they are quite incorrigibly on their own, most acutely when they are engaged in unique research projects such as for a Ph.D. No-one is doing the same project as you and so you may feel that it is inappropriate to discuss issues arising out of your research with, say, your peers, even those about which you are most enthusiatic, the successes you achieve. Problems experienced may appear likewise to be just your own. Whilst this sense of isolation may apparently signify a dissipation of any community there might otherwise be, it is also a driving force beehind postgraduates finding common problems generally with each other in an attempt to overcome one such common problem that is the isolation. Once more personal contact with other postgraduates is opeened up, informal networks can more easily develop. It is then a short, albeit sometimes bureaucratic, step to the formal conception of an association or society to which postgraduates can belong as members. This could occur within an identified discipline, bounded by a department of the institution. The network or association need not, indeed should not, stop at the departmental boundaries, howeveer. Despite a world of difference in the subject-specific content of postgraduate courses, between, say, Engineering and Philosophy, on examination all postgraduate students will find that they have muuch in common in terms of their place within their institution and issues arising from it. So a postgraduate community can easily be realized in terms of a formally constituted association across the whhole institution, serving in particular social and representative functions.

So the second issue which typically concerns the postgraduate student is social provision. There is likely to be much provision for undergraduate run societies and postgraduates are normally welcome to join in according to their interests in specific activities. There is still a need for postgraduate oriented activities and events, however, to supply some confidence that organisers have the happiness and welfare of postgraduates particularly in mind. Needless to say, the best way to eensure this is to have postgraduates organising such events. A postgraduate association is in the best position to facilitate this, in turn. It can also serve the function of representation, as in the institution as a whole, the students union and as a co-ordinator for individual departments. Undergraduate representation in this last arena is likely to be geared to feedback and access too complaints procedures in the academic context. The postgraduate need here is the same at the most general level but in practice the specific needs are different, due to the different academic framewoorks, and departments may well be geared up properly to the undergraduate market only.

In this context, unique to research study, reside relations with supervisors and academic accommodation (in the sense of research support facilities). Many postgraduates have their own desk space and coomputer terminal in a lockable room, access to their study facilities both in and outside normal working hours, their supervisor or course leader is available for advice on a regular basis and provides detailed, positive, in-depth criticism of their draft dissertation chapters and write-up reports on their experiments.

Another group by contrast might report that their environment left a little to be desired. As regards their own studies, on leaving the lab they may have to uproot themselves to search vainly for a relaatively quiet space in the institution's library. Out of term time they might find it shut in the evenings, on the assumption of a librarian that the students must all have gone home and there is no neeed to keep it open, with the associated costs. During term time, say, the postgraduate will need to write up some notes on experiments or ideas for developing their project. They settle down on a commputer terminal in a public cluster of the institution, thoughts and ideas starting to flow, only to find that an enterprising lecturer has block booked it for an undergraduate class, bursting in and thhrowing off those formerly ensconced.

Having finally completed the task of drafting a chapter of their research dissertation, they leave it for their supervisor for comments in feedback. After a period of no response, they seek out their ssupervisor only to find that he or she has gone on sabbatical leave for the semester in some far away part of the world or is currently hopping from one conference to the next and impossible to pin downn if they are on campus. Having finally returned the work with comments, the research student may find just perfunctory notes scrawled in the margin, perhaps with a few corrections of written English tthrown in, not enough for them to tell how good their work is really, whether or not it is up to scratch. If their work is good then the student may feel encouraged to publish a paper or to patent a ddesign. There are specific issues of Intellectual Property Rightsto contend with for members of an institution without employee status, rights to authorship and exploitation respectively.

You may be noting that my paradigm of a postgraduate is a research student. There is certainly a more marked contrast with the undergraduate student here, the research study experience being so peculiaar. But it should not let us overlook what is by some way the majority grouping in postgraduate education, the taught course postgraduate student. The place in my schema of this category is more probllematic for me but I shall assume sufficient common ground with the research student category to say that the taught course students belong to the postgraduate community, with their specific issues to ddo with quality and standards of course content and teaching being distinguishable from the issues in undergraduate courses in general.

Many postgraduates find the opportunity, without any compulsion, to obtain some experience (and a little money) performing some demonstrating or teaching on courses for undergraduates. There are issuess here of support facilities and initial and ongoing training for the teaching work, the postgraduate not being treated fully as staff even in the context of this role, let alone in their research work.. If a complaint arises, either from them or against them, should the institution treat them for this purpose as staff? There may be pressure to take on more duties than the postgraduate wishes to do, or an expectation that they will perform duties without remuneration, just for the privilege.

Especially in the context of the duties additional to study, such as teaching work, the postgraduate may experience a build up of pressure upon their time management abilities. If they are interested iin an academic career, the sort of pressures are good experience for the future but the pressures can and, indeed, typically do affect adversely the chances of meeting the dissertation submission deadliine rcommended as the end of the "normal"period of study. This sort of deadline (with associated financial implications) is peculiar to research study and students are often thrown in at thee deep end and expected to cope with the pressures to which only in time they may be able to acclimatise. Funding is, in fact, the last in my list of issues which typically concern the postgraduate stuudent. Those obtaining a grant or other suitable source of income to study are the lucky minority, mandatory state support applying only to the PGCE out of all postgraduate courses. With or without fiinancial support individuals staying in postgraduate education are expected to live on a relatively low, non-pensionable income for some years beyond graduation, with career prospects often unstable at best.

The above does raise the issue whether there is one identifiable postgraduate community at all, since there are so many diverse courses and motivations to study and sources of funding support (or lack oof it). In response, I suggest that there are two ways in which we can draw the rough boundary lines around the postgraduate community. Negatively speaking, firstly, we may treat the postgraduate as sitting sometimes somewhat uneasily between undergraduate (definitely a student grouping) and academic staff, in all three areas of research, teaching and administration. The HEI will recognise the ppostgraduate as a student formally, and keep them in their place in practice thus when the need may be deemed to arise, yet the high academic standards are expected of the postgraduate in these areas. More positively speaking, secondly, the issues which typically concern the postgraduate student, form a grouping which delineates the postgraduate community, insofar as postgraduates will tend to sharee these characteristics with each other in significant degrees, i.e. a significant number of the characteristics with a significant number of other postgraduates, even if there are a number of postgraduuates who, on putting them in hypothetical pairs, will not share a great deal in common with their partner in the pair.

Despite the isolation experienced, i.e. where the individual thinks that they are alone, that individual is nonetheless part of a postgraduate community, at least in their current ins-titution, implicittly, if not explicitly. I postulate a strong relation, as opposed to a trivial one, between individual and community. A healthy postgraduate com-munity will through its health be supporting individualls, at least implicitly. And the reverse relation is illustrated by that when individuals are failed, such as by lack of support in the institution, the postgraduate community is made to feel "unweell" correspondingly.

The role of pleasure

Mark Southwell &Bill Howe (Leeds Metropolitan University Students' Union) presented at the RAWS Residential Conferenceat Durham University (6-8 April) and to the SRHE Student Development Networkmeeting (28 April) versions of a talk based around their "Unknown Pleasures: 'sparkles of glory' that illuminate student activities"(unpub. draft, April 1998). They adopt the distinction between three models of HEI. The first is the Ivory Tower, academic, knowledge-based, for developing the individual intellect who may then go onn to benefit society generally. The second model is Market-Driven, vocational, skills-based, aiming for explicit recognition of employability in society: they note an aside problem with this model thatt it seems to assume students are all the 18-year-old school-leaver type, yet to acquire employment-based skills, when in fact the majority of undergraduates are now older and many have work-based experrience already. The third model is the "Mature"HEI, with more general aims, the fostering of true understanding, being flexible and learner-centred in its practice.

Their models aside, Bill and Mark are interested in the place of extra-curricular activities, such as those organised through the student union. They warn student development workers against being mislled in their aims by the pro-market hegemony. They claim that the motivation to go into, for example, captaincy of the Rowing Club, or into setting up a new student society, is less to do with demonstrrating managerial attributes for the C.V. and utility for career purposes but more to do with the pleasure that is obtained in activities.

They cite some research surveys which confirm that the pleasure is what is at least recollected as the valuable experience. They see this fact as important for the aims of the Mature HEI.

What sort of plaesure are we dealing with here? It is not the immediate sensual gratification type of hedonistic pleasure. It is, rather, a form of aesthetic pleasure, partly perceptual, partly intelllectual: "Our view is that the acquisition of knowledge is a 'revelatory' process, a movement from the unknown to a 'reality as yet dimly perceived but apprehended in its "worthness"' [Maarjorie Reeves (1988), The Crisis in Higher Education - competence, delight and common good, Milton Keynes: SRHE & Open University Press), p16], which is unpredictable and individualised. Identification of these precious moments, these 'sparkles of glory', is further complicated when it comees to student activities, many of which are undertaken by individuals primarily because of the pleasure and delight they give. We will argue that 'pleasure', a sensuous, extreme and autonomous physicaliity, cannot be sublimated into the values of life skills, employability and life long learning."[p1] Their opponents would "have failed to ask why do individuals take part. Instead they havve tried to map a value system on to these activities therefore denying the initial desire to take part in the activity, a desire which stems from the pleasure gained in taking part, the pleasure gainedd from that 'sparkle of glory' when the hidden is revealed, the pleasure from gazing into the divine, from knowing absolutely - deep as knowing goes."[p3] The pleasure is unlegislatable or unrulyy, in that there is no formula for predicting its precipitation, which depends upon the unique individuals in the unique circumstances of their joint approach to the (unique) way an activity is set up.

I suggest that Bill and Mark are correct in their analysis, as far as it goes. The question I ask them, however, is whether, by omission from the analysis, at least, they see a hard grind of academic sstudy as the backdrop against which the extra-curricular pursuit is the enjoyable escape. I would answer for them that they should not see the academic side of student life as by contrast unpleasurablee. There need be no conflict between study and pleasure, and it is here that I hold the postgraduate perspective very much in mind. Postgraduates must enjoy their academic work: otherwise they would nnot have made the sacrifice to embark upon it, having obtained the credibility of graduate status already. If they enjoy their academic subject now then they must have enjoyed a sufficient amount of thheir undergraduate studies too. It is a fair and not particularly bold inference to make, then, that all undergraduates obtain some pleasure some of the time in their studies.

I have agreed with Bill and Mark's analysis as far as it goes. I posit two addenda. The first is that we should treat pleasure as criterial of wellbeing. That is, pleasure is not strictly a sufficiennt condition for wellbeing, since you can be happy at a particular time yet not secure, but I suggest that it is a heuristic test for the soundness of sufficient welfare mechanisms; I tentatively expandd, perhaps more strongly, that pleasure is a necessary condition of wellbeing, that those generally unable to enjoy what they do are "unwell". I am concentrating on the postgraduate communityy as my main concern. My second addendum is to say that student union officers are not often good enough at realising fully the centrality of academic study to the postgraduate experience. It is truee that postgraduate students want to enjoy non-academic pursuits too and many involve themselves in undergraduate oriented activities. The point is, however, that the postgraduate course is normally trreated by the students as the equivalent of their first graduate career job, so taken very seriously.

The place of the postgraduate community in the institution

Because of the way that courses are run, the postgraduate experience tends to be very department based, at least initially. Many student union officers see involvement in the union as synonymous withouut getting bodies into the physical building, meetings often being held there and more use being made of amenities such as bars. The relative absence of identified postgraduates in these forums leads tthe more cynical officers to say "postgraduates do not get involved - tough on them!"Instead officers shold be looking a bit more searchingly for evidence of networking and other activities by postgraduates in their departments as an extension of the workings of the student union itself. The union should then make more overtures to these autonomous activities, and vice-versa. An examplee would be the high volume of email communications, possible if not actual, between postgraduates. It would be relatively easy to set up more focussed discussion groups on issues of concern for represeentation and campaigning with involvement from the union without any parties having to leave their desks.

I emphasise again that a semi-autonomous postgraduate association is central to the success of an institution-wide postgraduate discussion and representation forum. It gives the postgraduate community the necessary profile, recognised by the union, yet to be seen as largely directed by postgraduates themselves. It needs a generous budget for all of its activities (I recommend as a ballpark figure ffor larger institutions 1.00 per postgraduate member up front for an annual budget), patience from the fund-allocators and, preferably, some extra administrative support, perhaps even in the formm of a postgraduate sabbatical officer of the union. In return the association will be able to perform many of the tasks seen as essential for the union's list of responsibilities, for example inductioon, where for postgraduates the traditional school-leaver-oriented events are not universally suitable.

If this is beyond the means of the union then there is a good case for the institution itself to step in, particularly as regards the funding side. It might even take the lead of providing an institutiion-wide "Graduate School". Such a structure is best constituted with a significant function being to facilitate postgraduate-run activities and representation. The Graduate School is a flexxible concept: it may or may not serve also as a touter for external research money for the institution's parts, or be the registry for postgraduates. It ought, normally, however, to take the lead in rrunning the support and welfare mechanisms servicing the issues which typically concern the postgraduate student, as listed in the first section above. This sort of background of support will enhance tthe pleasure immanent in the individual pursuit of academic study, and hence postgraduate wellbeing. I would insist, however, that decisions made in and for the Graduate School have a significant postggraduate input.

Developments in higher education

I round off with a slight tangent to the thesis above, with developments, arising out of the Dearing Review and before it (reporting in May 1996) the Harris Review of Postgraduate Education, which are having or will have an effect upon the wellbeing of postgraduates and their communities. It is a tangent particularly because it is neutral as to which account of postgraduate wellbeing we might adopt.

Harris recommended that departments should obtain a Research Assessment Exerciserating of 3 or more as a condition of HEFC funding with respect to postgraduate registrations. In this context I would say that the quality of the postgraduate experience in a 5* rated department withh loads of postgraduates might turn out to be very disheartening. The supervisor might be too busy, albeit doing good research, and you might feel too much like just one of a crowd of students. A deveeloping research community in a low-rated department, with few postgraduates, on the other hand, might provide excellent supervision and treat you as if staff, in the sense of respect and privileges. II would not like to see departments deciding to opt out of the research process to the detriment of postgraduate research study within them.

Apart from its work on the typology of postgraduate courses and qualifications, the Quality Assurance Agencyhas been developing a stronger Code of Practicewhich will encompass postgraduate study. The National Postgraduate Committee approves of the work here but we are concerned that Taught postgraduate courses do not fall between the stools of Code-goverrned research study and benchmarked undergraduate study.

The Institute for Learning and Teachinghas adopted the right approach, that postgraduate teachers should be eligible to work towards accreditation of their teaching. Our worry is that the demands of attaining the first level of status withhin the ILT are too great within the time period of, say, the period of Ph.D. study. On top of that the first level of attainment should not be seen as merely token recognition, the level postgraduatess can attain but not taken seriously compared to lecturer's possibilities. Separately, research supervision is a form of teaching and it is not clear how that can be accredited on the scales of levels of status proposed.

The Teaching and Higher Education Actand the Lifelong Learning Green Paperprovide my final development question. There are issues of funding for and access to study. These issues are raised already for undergraduate entrants. Any problems arising now, three years hence, wwill be multiplied for postgraduate entry, given current levels of support for postgraduate study. There will be demand for places but the question remains whether the best candidates fill those placess. Will they complete their studies or become too "unwell"and drop out? Will some academic research areas be depleted more than others? My optimistic hope is that problems for access to posttgraduate education will be met, at least in part, given that we continue to raise the issues.