PhD 'failure' rates revealed

Reproduced with kind permission of Times Higher Education Supplement

Zoe Corbyn
Published: 05October2007

Hefce ranks timely completion rates to help student choice and raise standards. Zoe Corbyn reports

Six English universities have been named for failing to properly support their PhD students in a new official league table set to shake up the lucrative market for postgraduate students.

The table, compiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has for the first time revealed the proportion of PhD students at each institution who fail to qualify within seven years. The move is part of a drive to assure "the quality of supervision of postgraduate research students" and is likely to be used by prospective postgraduates to choose where to study, Hefce said.

The report this week names six universities where there is a large gap between the proportion of postgraduates completing and a Hefce benchmark for the percentage it believes should be qualifying. The institutions include: Liverpool John Moores University, where 26 per cent qualified against a benchmark of 74 per cent; Brighton University, where 40 per cent qualified against a 78 per cent target; Hertfordshire University, where 45 per cent qualified (against 74 per cent) and Sunderland University, where 50 per cent qualified (against 78 per cent).

Also cited were Royal Holloway, University of London, where 53 per cent qualified, and the Open University, where 62 per cent did.

Paul Hubbard, Hefce head of research policy, said the table would be useful for university managers. He said of those well below benchmarks: "We expect them to investigate why they got this result and, if necessary, take corrective action." He added that the table contained information that students "might well want to look at in deciding where to go".

On the positive side, four universities were singled out for having exceeded their benchmarks. These are King's College London (92 per cent qualified in time against a benchmark of 79 per cent), Southampton and Bristol universities (90 per cent in time), and York University (89 per cent).

The table is based on the proportion of full-time home and European Union students starting research degree programmes at English higher education institutions in 1999-2000 and qualifying within the seven years to 2005-06. Of 8,013 students starting PhDs in 1999-2000, 78 per cent qualified in the time window.

Duncan Connors, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said the table "will allow students to gauge the success or failure of a university... before applying". But he said universities should go further and reveal how quickly students complete under individual academics. "It should not be hard to pass a PhD, but certain academics are very, very poor supervisors."

Another table, on overseas student qualification rates, shows the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Aston University and the London School of Economics have the lowest percentage qualifying and are furthest from their benchmarks. The LSHTM has a qualification rate of 25 per cent but is benchmarked at 82 per cent. At LSE, a 45 per cent qualification rate compares to the 67 per cent benchmark.