Three years ago, as one of three representative PhD students, sitting in the Institute of Education (IoE) Director's office, I remember feeling supremely confident extolling the virtues of the 3-year PhD. My message - taught and specialist training courses meant that although my thesis was narrow in its specialism (an ethnographic case study of 4 Nicaraguan Secondary School English language teachers) I had employment opportunities beyond the world of academia. The Ivory tower, no longer loomed on my personal horizon. My audience was a panel of three high ranking representatives from the Research Councils. Little surprise then that what attracted me most to the parallel afternoon session was its theme: Generic Research Training.
In the intervening years, my interest had sharpened into concerns. Last year as Chair of the Research Students Society, this year as Student Union President, and now a fourth year PhD student; I queried why the PhD system intended to offer the research student guidance and support towards a timely and successful completion, was causing angst among research students.
In the three presentations, I found a partial answer, one which would help me to address this sense of unease which was being felt amongst some students, myself included, and very simply put: "One size does not fit all". Obvious, perhaps, but easily overlooked as the desire to embed the change, forcefully drives the policy makers and enactors at a speed which might discourage flexibility and reflection.
Sir Richard Noakes, in his keynote speech, had referred specifically to Science PhD students who had come into research after uninterrupted study through the BA and MSc levels. Such specificity was alluded to in Dr. Ian Cameron's presentation "The Research Councils' Perspective". He acknowledged that generic training had arisen through a concern about the research experience of its funded students. Research Council funding was now conditional upon the provision of generic research training. Dr. Cameron's vagueness about the benefits of generic training for non-council funded students was tackled by the other two speakers.
Professor Richard Balment, University of Mancherster, positively exuded high expectations as he talked of 'starting afresh', the pulling together of two mammoth postgraduate programmes, each rooted in the cultural or their respective institutions - the University of Manchester and University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). The bold language demanded flexibility: The design of a skills training process must include "flexibility to accommodate students starting with a wide-range of background experience....flexibility to support students carrying out research in different ways....must be recognised as relevant by students and supervisors." The development of a Postgraduate Training and Development Policy was based on the achievement of defined competencies - "more efficient and flexible than a system of compulsory attendance courses", and which "allows recognition of prior learning and experience".
Dr. Jon Turner, in his presentation of the programme of transferable skills currently in place at Edinburgh University, was no less dedicated to the individual research student. "Post Graduate Training Skills (PGTS) are considerate of previous experience. It is not all about formal courses" Designed for PhD students, "the PGTS, incorporate the benefits of flexibility and tailoring to experience and discipline."
Both Balment and Turner extolled the importance of the role of supervisors in this process of generic training. "Recognition that training delivery must be seen/felt to be relevant by student and supervisor" (Balment). "The role of the supervisor is crucial in encouraging students to take them (PGTS) up" (Turner). Discussion on the supervisory role resurfaced the next day in the common interest, early session led by Dr. Paul Davies. PhD students in the Sciences can see the supervisor daily in the lab. Whereas in the "Humanities, students spend a tremendous amount of time formulating their research question" (at which point I was nodding in agreement) "these students may talk themselves out of it over time"..."the periods of disengagement are less obvious for the Arts than the Humanities."
Substitute 'disengagement' with 'withdrawal rates' and one has the title theme of this breakfast session. Should withdrawal rates be highlighted, benchmarked? Is a benchmark applicable? What is acceptable? These were some of the questions posed. In favour of publishing withdrawal rates was the argument that it helps to develop a High Risk Profile with implications for recruitment and student support. Yet overriding this was the assertion that to do so was "too dangerous. It would be a stick with which to beat the university."
"Beating the University" could be construed as the approach of International students as they sought to overcome the 'Dilemmas for Supervisors of Overseas Students', the subject of the themed parallel afternoon session led by Emeritus Professor Maureen Pope. I had to admit to being disappointed as the dilemmas highlighted in depth were for me, basic vocabulary in a game of word association - culture, expectations, family, homesick, accommodation, fees, visas.
Disappointment was not, however, the mood that remained with me from the conference. It was one of conviction and confidence. Conviction that a "one size does not fit all" - "the goal to provide best possible training and educational experience for all students" (Balment) and from this the confidence to push for recognition of the IoE students' diverse experience and for the training programmes to better demonstrate flexibility. After all, the average age of our students is 35 and with experience as wide-ranging as that brought by a policy advisor to the Education Authority in Hong Kong, an International consultant in sex education, a special needs London teacher and a professional researcher working for a nationally funded body.