Impact of the Research Assessment Exercise Response by the National Postgraduate Committee (1996)

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1. The organisation and management of universities and of the research function within them.

The Research Assessment Exercise has drawn greater attention to the importance of research within the academic sector, which has resulted in a greater demand for research to be undertaken and published. One mechanism to generate and assist in research output in many newer universities has been to increase substantially the number of research studentships available. While this is obviously of benefit to students wishing to enter postgraduate research, this increase in numbers has not always been matched by a commensurate increase in the provision of facilities and the development of appropriate quality assurance mechanisms.

It is essential that universities wishing to develop their research function in this manner recognise the significant investment made by a student undertaking a postgraduate research degree, and provide facilities and resources to allow them to do so in a productive manner. It is also important to recognise that research supervision involves a considerable number of diverse skills. As such, all supervisors (new or experienced) must be offered on-going support and training to ensure and maintain quality. The National Postgraduate Committee has published Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research to which we refer the research team.

2. The nature and quality of the research being carried out.

This demand to publish research findings has led to an increasing pressure upon research students to conduct research that is publishable in nature. There has also been, in certain instances, an increased pressure to publish regularly while conducting this research. It is important to recognise that the primary purpose of a research degree is to provide a training in research. This training will involve conducting a piece of original research, and it may be good experience for the student to publish the findings of this research. However, the main goal of the research student is to produce the thesis which will be examined. The NPC is aware that pressure to publish can delay the submission of the thesis.

Research students should be free from pressure to publish unless it is their explicit wish to do so; completion of the research degree should be the number one priority for all concerned. Students should also be free to direct the focus of their own research and should be fully supported in doing so, even if this focus will result in less publishable material.

3. The balance of effort between teaching and research.

Both teaching and research activities are extremely time consuming. It is essential that academic members of staff are allocated enough time to do both in a professional and productive manner. As a result of the Research Assessment Exercise, the pressure to undertake publishable research increased. However, the increase in research activity was often not matched with a reduction in teaching load. In order to conduct original research, or supervise postgraduate research, it is essential that teaching responsibilities are at a level which will allow both activities to be undertaken.

Postgraduate research students should never be put in a position where supervisors are unable to give them the support they require as a result of teaching or other research commitments. A commitment to supervise a research student should be recognised and accounted for by the department/faculty, and the member of staff concerned.

A common mechanism for reducing the teaching load of academic staff undertaking research activity is to employ postgraduate students to carry out more teaching duties. The NPC recognises that the opportunity to teach is a valuable experience for many research students, and can also be a valuable source of income. However, we believe it is essential that safeguards are in place to protect all parties involved. Again, completion of the thesis should be the main priority, and postgraduates must be not be pressured into teaching if submission is likely to be delayed. The NPC believes that no postgraduate student should be involved in teaching duties (including preparation or marking) for more than an average of six hours per week. All teaching work should be done on a contractual basis with duties and remuneration set out clearly.

Of particular concern at the present time is the increasing number of "teaching assistantships" that are being promoted by institutions, providing a more formal teaching contract. Whilst we do recognise that these are an effective way of increasing numbers of postgraduate research students and a valuable source of funding, it is essential that the student is not expected to teach to an extent that is detrimental to their research. The same time limits as for casual teaching work should apply.

We refer the research team to our publication entitled Guidelines for the Employment of Postgraduate Students as Teachers.

4. Recruitment and retention of staff.

The assessment of research output has led all institutions to look very carefully at the publication record of applicants for positions when recruiting staff. There is evidence to suggest that, in many cases, publication or potential to publish is regarded as the significant criterion for appointment of a new member of staff. This can work against newly qualified applicants applying for posts in the academic profession, who have simply not had the time to publish widely. This is particularly the case in disciplines such as philosophy where acceptance rate for papers is extremely low.

The fear of not being able to secure a full-time academic position after completion of a research degree places a great deal of pressure on a research student to publish while undertaking their research. We have already argued that this may delay submission of the thesis, and affect the quality of the research training and experience gained.

It is important to recognise that publication cannot and should not be employed as the only measure of quality of research if it is desired to encourage able and skilled postgraduates into the academic profession.

5. Attitudes and priorities of academic staff.

The NPC recognises the tremendous pressure placed on academic members of staff by the Research Assessment Exercise. It is equally important to recognise the pressures and difficulties of undertaking a research degree for the student concerned. These pressures must not be compounded by academic members of staff regarding research undertaken by postgraduate students as a means of enhancing their own research performance for the purpose of assessment. It is essential to ensure that the priorities of academic staff in this area remain only the provision of high quality research supervision and training for postgraduate students.

We enclose copies of the following NPC publications for your information:
Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research
Guidelines on Accommodation and Facilities for Postgraduate Research
Guidelines for the Employment of Postgraduate Students as Teachers