NPC/01/11/B: Joint Funding Councils' Review of Research Training

Joint Funding Councils Review of Research Training

NPC responses to discussion issues

I present a summary of an NPC workshop held on 4 November 2001 in the Graduate School of University College Worcester to discuss the Joint Funding Councils Review of Research Training. 13 representatives were present.

James Groves
General Secretary
28/11/01

1. What is the NPCs view of the QAA code of practice for postgraduate research programmes, and what amendments would you make, if any?

The NPC strongly endorses the QAA code of practice for postgraduate research programmes; the QAA consulted us at length when they drafted the code, and we feel they have produced a positive and realistic framework for all departments and all disciplines.

The code is, of course, very general; it is less prescriptive than, for example, the HEQC code of practice it replaced. Given this generality, there is no excuse in our view for departments not conforming to the code of practice in full.

2. What would the NPC define as good practice in research training with respect to:

  • appropriate research environment?

Regular seminars and colloquia, with both internal and external speakers, are a vital part of the research environment. Students should be encouraged to present their work, as a way of both defending and contextualising their research.

Less formal seminars, run specifically for research students, should also take place. These can develop presentation skills as well as offering a less intimidating atmosphere to present ones thoughts. Some at our workshop thought academic staff should actually be excluded from such seminars, to remove any sense of intimidation; others felt the speakers supervisor and other sympathetic academics could provide much-needed backup if needed. It was agreed that the presence of a supervisor meant different things to different students; to some it was a plus, to others a significant minus!

The size of the students research group is a key influencing factor on his/her research environment.

In a large research group, the student will often be entirely immersed in a small subfield, attending very specialised seminars and developing advanced research skills. Care must be taken to ensure sufficient opportunities are provided for the student to properly contextualise his/her work, for example by attending more general seminars or colloquia, and to develop more generic skills.

By contrast, in a small research group, the students supervisor may be his/her only true colleague at a subdisciplinary level. Seminars and colloquia act principally as a means of widening the students horizons and developing his/her scholarship. There is a greater focus on generic skills. In this case, care must be taken to ensure the student is able to properly meet and interact with the leading players in his/her field, for example by establishing regional networks and encouraging the student to attend specialist meetings abroad. If the funding councils are to properly encourage the development of postgraduate research within smaller research groups (and we believe small groups can be excellent research training environments) they need to think about making funding available to properly encourage the development of regional, national and international networks.

Professional and learned societies can play an important role in facilitating networks between research students, and helping research students communicate with academics at different institutions.

  • infrastructure and facilities?

Students should be provided with adequate space, equipment and software. We recognise there will always be constraints on funds, but feel it is important research students are given the same consideration as other members of their departments research community when allocating resources.

Adequate social facilities are of key importance to research students; only by interacting with fellow academics in a non-formal environment will they truly see themselves as part of a research community. All departments and research groups should have a common room or similar social area which research students should be encouraged to use.

  • supervisory arrangements?

All institutions, academics and students should be in no doubt that research supervision is a teaching responsibility and should be assessed and accredited as such.

There are too many research students having too little contact with their supervisor, or supervision team, prior to their registration. Many easily avoidable problems, such as personality clashes or misunderstandings about the student or supervisors past experience, could have their impact minimised through early communication.

All supervisors should be properly appraised as an integral part of their continuing professional development. Effective appraisal includes giving students the right to comment on their supervisor in confidence, without fear of reprisal.

The practice of appointing second supervisors can be highly effective. In particular, we feel a second supervisor should always be appointed when the first supervisor has never supervised before, or where problems have arisen in the course of the first supervisors recent appraisals.

  • student recruitment and induction?

Each student needs to be mothered into a research environment with a high quality induction programme, which focuses on the specific needs of their discipline.

All students need training in basic matters such as: campus layout; using the library; IT facilities; who to contact in the department; how to raise complaints; and how to use the students unions facilities. Training should be verbal, not just on paper. Students should feel theyve been given a personal introduction to their institution.

  • skills training research, generic and teaching?

An effective skills training is important for both students and institutions. It is a sign of institutions lack of commitment and imagination that too many students view training as over-generalised, under-resourced and a waste of their time.

Attendance at skills programmes should not usually rest on compulsion; students should be able to dip in and out, focusing on courses of direct relevance to their needs. Of course, a first year research student is often not best placed to know which courses are of use to him/her; we feel his/her supervisor can play a key role here in guiding him/her to the most effective courses. All programmes of supervisor training should include tuition in how to best guide a student through the morass of research and generic skills courses available.

There will, however, be a need to ensure all students attend training courses of some description without a requirement on the part of departments to ensure their students are trained, we fear too many departments will fail to make adequate provision. All departments should be required to send their research students on a Research Councils Graduate Schools Programme or comparable course during their studies.

For smaller departments and research groups, collaboration with local higher education institutions may be desirable to ensure adequate research training provision. As an example, departments who do not run an M level course in a specified field, but who do wish to recruit research students and would like them to be trained to M level, could receive support to enable the student to attend an M level course at an institution nearby. We feel funding council resources could be made available to help facilitate such collaboration.

The issue of training for teaching skills is massively complex and is probably best dealt with separately. Liz Allens recent report on part-time teaching for NATFHE dealt with many of the relevant issues here.

  • monitoring and assessing programmes?

As a programme essentially delivered as a taught course, we feel postgraduate research training programmes should be subject to the same quality assurance procedures as other taught courses. Where appropriate, a postgraduate diploma or masters degree should be awarded upon successful completion of a programme; this is of course the view taken by the ESRC in promoting 1+3 programmes.

  • student feedback mechanisms?

All students should be asked for feedback on their research training, both during and following completion of their course. Opportunity should always be provided for students to make comments in confidence; if need be, only the student registry should be privy to students views.

There will always be problems of confidentiality surrounding research students feedback. If an academic is only supervising one research student, and receives feedback that his/her supervisory skills have been questioned, its not too difficult to establish the source of the disquiet! These inherent problems with confidentiality give supervisors potentially massive power over their students, and any system of quality assurance needs to take this into account.

First destinations surveys have the potential to give useful information on the quality of students research training experiences.

3. What is an appropriate level of student representation in the quality assurance of research degrees?

All quality assurance committees within institutions should include (at least) one student representative. Those at our workshop knew of many institutions where the level of student representation in this area was either zero, or merely token (i.e. citing student representation on the senate or academic board as sufficient).

Any national research training assessment exercise (whether undertaken as part of the RAE, or separately) should take the student viewpoint into account as a matter of course.

We felt that institutions were only likely to take research training seriously if the levels of funding for research training were dependent on a quality assessment, in the same way that QR funding is currently managed. Funding should follow good practice.

4. Please state any examples of your experience of good practice in any aspect of research training at institutional or unit level.

Our workshop knew of several departments that ran informal seminars for research students; these were all praised. At one department the seminars are held at lunchtime, with food and drink, and the emphasis is as much social as academic. At another department there is a seminar programme run by and for postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers permanent staff are specifically excluded, to avoid any potential for confrontation and minimise peoples nerves.

Some (not many) institutions seek anonymous but controlled feedback from students, such as by issuing all research students with tick-box questionnaires. While there are obvious limits to the amount of information that can be gained from such surveys, they can be a valuable indicator of whether the standard, more detailed but less anonymous, forms of feedback are accurate.

5. If funding follows good practice, what are the criteria against which you would want the quality of research degree programmes to be measured?

The quality of research degree provision within a department or research group should be measured against all the headings in question 2 above.

The external quality assurance of research degrees, covering in particular the extent to which institutions abide by the code of practice, could we feel usefully be incorporated into QAA institutional audit procedures. There are certainly many overlaps between the information institutions are likely to be asked to provide as part of HEFCEs proposed new quality assurance regime for taught courses (see the recent HEFCE consultation paper 01/66, Information on quality and standards of teaching and learning, available at www.hefce.ac.uk) and the information institutions could usefully provide as part of an effective system of quality assurance for research courses.

In particular, there could well be a role for external examiners reports in assessing the quality of research degree provision within a department.