Response by the National Postgraduate Committee to the Office of Science and Technology Consultation Paper: A New Structure for Postgraduate Research Training Supported by the Research Councils. (1994)

1 Introduction

1.1 The proposals contained in the 1993 White Paper, 'Realising our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology', and in the 1994 Consultation Paper represent what may turn out to be the most significant change in the way postgraduate research training is provided in this country since the introduction of the PhD. The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes this opportunity to comment on these proposals.

1.2 The National Postgraduate Committee believes that students who have the desire and ability to undertake doctoral research should be able to do so whether or not they have a Masters' degree. We have for some time been opposed to the trend, most notable in the social sciences, to require a Masters' degree as a prerequisite for entry to a PhD programme. We are also opposed to the proposal contained in the White Paper that a Research Masters' (or 'MRes') should be compulsory for all those applying for a Research Council studentship to study for a PhD.

1.3 The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes the more flexible approach which is taken in the Consultation Paper in comparison to the original proposal. In particular we would like to welcome the introduction to the discussion of an alternative model for the provision of the new structure (paragraphs 15-16), and the increased allowance for exemptions to the Research Masters' year. Nevertheless, we believe that the OST should go further in this direction.

1.4 We also welcome the OST's announcement (paragraph 17) that,

'... the clear expectation should be that all students should be able to submit their doctoral theses within the four year period from the start of training.'

However, we have serious doubts as to whether this can be achieved in practice without greater attention being paid to the level of support given to postgraduates during their studies.

1.5 The National Postgraduate Committee is opposed to any reduction in the number of Research Council PhD studentships.

These and other issues are considered in greater detail in this response.

2 Comments on the Structure of and Selection for Research Training

2.1 Of the two suggested models for the provision of research training of four years' duration (paragraph 15), the National Postgraduate Committee prefers the second, under which the elements comprising a research Masters' (MRes) are provided in the first year of an integrated 4-year research programme, leading to a PhD.

2.2 Many of the MRes elements are already included in the first year of PhD programmes as part of the training for research, although these elements may not be assessed. It would therefore be easier, at least in the Sciences, to introduce the proposed reforms in this way than to attempt to implement a '1+3' system. Furthermore, it will be easier for smaller institutions and departments to organise postgraduate research programmes, thus helping to maintain the diversity of research.

2.3 We are concerned that, whatever the intentions of the proposed changes, an MRes qualification will be seen as a failed PhD, similar to the MPhil, but of an even lower standard. Therefore it is important not only that studentships are awarded for four years in the first instance, but also that Research Councils do not impose any quota on the number of students eligible to continue receiving funding after the first year.

2.4 In many industries there does not appear to be much demand for the MRes qualification. If free-standing MRes courses are to be established, this should only happen in disciplines where there is a demand for MRes Graduates.

2.5 The National Postgraduate Committee does not agree that it should become the norm for an MRes (whether integrated into a PhD programme or as a course in its own right) to be a prerequisite for undertaking doctoral research. We recommend instead that there are many routes, of which the MRes is just one.

2.6 These would include the 'exemptions' listed in paragraph 28 of the Consultation Paper, namely a traditional Masters' degree, an extended undergraduate course, or relevant experience in industry. In addition, able candidates should still be able to take a 3-year PhD having only gained a Bachelors' degree, as has happened up until now. They could be given 'top-up' training during the first year of the PhD, as is the current practice.

2.7 Although the standard prerequisite for undertaking doctoral research is an upper second class Honours degree, it is possible for graduates gaining a lower second to take a Masters' degree and then go on to a PhD. This route is most prevalent in the natural sciences. Given that the class of undergraduate degree awarded is not necessarily a good indicator of the suitability of a candidate to undertake research, this option should still remain under the new structure. In particular, the standard minimum qualification for acceptance onto an MRes course or a four-year PhD should a lower second class Honours degree.

2.8 In the case of doctoral research students not funded by a research council and students who are employed as research assistants, we recommend that institutions are encouraged to adopt a flexible approach. Such students should only need to take an MRes (or the elements of an MRes) when it is in their own interests so to do. Whatever route is taken, the quality of provision should be the same as for students funded by a research council.

3 Comments on the Content of the Research Masters' Element

3.1 In paragraph 14 of the Consultation Paper it is specified that the research component would account for at least 60% of the postgraduate year, with research techniques, development of specialist knowledge and 'transferable skills' making up the remainder. While this may be appropriate in many disciplines, it is possible that some may require a greater emphasis on, for example, the development of specialist knowledge. The National Postgraduate Committee recommends that such proportions should not be specified across the board. Instead, institutions and departments should be given the freedom to decide on what proportions provide the best training for research in their particular field.

3.2 One of the stated aims of the proposed changes is to make the PhD a more attractive qualification from the point of view of potential employers in industry and commerce. However, it is not clear that including a few assorted management and business studies modules in the PhD will achieve this aim. Since formal management skills are typically taught when the graduate enters industry, it may be preferable for students to concentrate on those skills, such as communication and time management, which are directly relevant to attaining a PhD.

3.3 Regarding the other suggested elements, such as management skills and commercial understanding, students are likely to more receptive to an informal approach. For several years, the SERC Graduate Schools have sought to give PhD students a flavour of work outside academia, including simulated experience of all the skills listed in paragraph 14(c) of the Consultation Paper. From what we can gather, virtually all students who have attended one of these courses rate them very highly and gain considerable benefit from them. We recommend that the SERC Graduate School scheme be extended to allow places to be offered to all PhD students.

4 Comments on the Recognition and Funding of Research Training Programmes

4.1 According to the Consultation Paper (paragraph 30),

'The new structure can be expected to lead to ..... a reduction in numbers [of awards] for the PhD.'

There are a number of factors which suggest that this would be an undesirable consequence of the proposed changes.

4.2 In the White Paper it was claimed (paragraph 7.16) that,

'... the traditional PhD is not well matched to the needs of a career outside research in academia or an industrial research laboratory.'

Yet a majority of science and engineering-based PhD graduates are employed outside these fields, and at 3% the unemployment rate for all PhD graduates is much lower than the rates for other graduates and for the general population. If the aim of making the PhD an even more attractive qualification to employers in industry is achieved, this is likely to be result in an increase in the demand from employers for PhDs.

4.3 In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the demand from students for PhD places, with rapidly rising application rates. The available evidence suggests that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, with the greater numbers gaining undergraduate degrees, higher degrees such as the PhD will become more attractive simply as a means of differentiating between graduates in the job market, as has happened in the USA.

4.4 Reducing the number of PhD studentships will not necessarily reduce the number of students taking PhDs. Instead there will be ever increasing numbers relying on part-time employment and loans from their family or a bank to fund their studies. Since inadequate funding is perhaps the most important causal factor associated with non-completion, this will lead to far greater waste of time and money than is currently the case.

4.5 Therefore the National Postgraduate Committee would like to see the number of PhD studentships maintained at current levels. Given that funding is to be increased to four years in many cases, and the annual maintenance rate (for SERC and ESRC studentships) is barely adequate at current levels, this implies that additional funds will be required.

4.6 In the case that the 1+3 model is chosen (a distinct MRes followed by a PhD), we suggest that funding for a further three years is available to all MRes students who wish to continue with a PhD provided the institution is satisfied with their progress. Since selection for PhD will need to happen before the final results of the MRes are known, this would also solve the problem of uncertainty over funding; one way of approaching this would be to award a studentship to all those MRes students who applied, conditional on a satisfactory result at the end of the year.

4.7 In 1992, SERC decided to cease the provision of advanced course studentships for so-called non-vocational MSc's. Given that these are often used as essential training for those wishing to undertake a PhD (and many would say those courses are more suitable for that purpose than the proposed MRes), this decision now appears to say the least ill-timed. We would encourage SERC's successor Research Councils to recommence funding for such courses as an alternative to the introduction of a new MRes.

4.8 The expectation '... that all students should be able to submit their doctoral theses within the four year period from the start of training' is, we believe, optimistic given the ESRC's experience that many students who already have an appropriate MA degree fail to submit within four years of starting their research. It will not be achieved without serious consideration given to the quality of provision for research students.

4.9 In order for a research training programme to gain recognition, the Research Council should ensure that all students have the necessary support in terms of quality of supervision, availability of facilities and efficiency of administration to enable them to complete in four years. It is essential that every such programme has in place a code of practice (for example, the NPC's 'Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research'), and that its implementation is regularly monitored. It should be noted that postgraduate research training is the only area of academic activity which is not yet evaluated by a single national body.

4.10 It is noted that the criteria for a PhD differ markedly between institutions, and between different disciplines within institutions. While each awarding institution must retain the right to establish its own criteria, care should be taken to ensure that all such criteria give every student the opportunity to complete within four years of starting research training.

5 Comments on the Timetable for Introduction

5.1 If the structure of postgraduate provision is to change in 1995, that will affect students applying for a Masters' course now who may want to apply for a PhD studentship in 1995, or those considering whether to apply this year or delay their application until next year. Any changes which are made should be introduced over a period of several years, with both systems running concurrently for a period of time, so that students currently deciding what to do are not put at a disadvantage in later years.

6 Summary

The comments made in this document are summarised here according to the list of issues in paragraph 37 of the Consultation Paper.

i) Free-standing MRes courses should only be established in disciplines where there is a demand for MRes graduates (2.4).

Institutions and departments should be free to decide the proportion of time devoted to each element (3.1).

Students should concentrate on those 'transferable' skills which are directly relevant to attaining a PhD (3.2).

The SERC Graduate School scheme should be extended to allow places to be offered to all PhD students (3.3).

ii) Model 2 (MRes elements provided in the first year of a 4-year research programme) is preferred to Model 1 (a distinct MRes followed by a PhD) (2.1).

iii) Under either model, funding should be available to all students who wish to study for a further three years, provided the institution is satisfied with their progress (2.3, 4.6).

The standard minimum qualification for acceptance onto an MRes course or a four-year PhD should be a lower second class Honours degree (2.7).

iv) Care should be taken to ensure that each institution's criteria for a PhD give every student the opportunity to complete within four years of starting research training (4.10).

It is essential that every research training programme has in place a code of practice and that its implementation is regularly monitored (4.9).

v) SERC's successor Research Councils are encouraged to recommence funding of non-vocational MSc's as an alternative to the introduction of a new MRes (4.7).

vi) There should be many routes to a PhD, of which the MRes is just one (2.5).

In addition to the exemptions listed (a traditional Masters', an extended undergraduate degree, industrial experience), able candidates should be able to take a 3-year PhD directly after a Bachelors' degree (2.6).

vii) Students not funded by a Research Council and those employed as research assistants should only need to take an MRes when it is in their interests to do so (2.8).

viii) Any changes which are made should be introduced over a period of several years.