NPC/03/09/B: Joint Funding Councils Improving Standards in Research Degree Programmes, Response to the Formal Consultation

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Also in Consultations 2003...

by Tim Brown

Executive Summary

As the second consultation has been reached, we as the only body speaking directly for the interests of postgraduate students in the UK are keen to express our response in light of what responses have been sent by higher education institutions to the informal consultation. As you will see this has raised awareness from our members to include all forms of research degree in these improved standards as well as suggestions on research training, supervisor training and auditing by the QAA. We have also given our response with respect to the critical mass of researchers as well as a number of cases where we would call for some standards of good practise to become minimum standards. We hope that our response will be taken into careful consideration with the interests of the research student being accounted for.

Preamble

The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is a charity with the aim to advance, in the public interest, postgraduate education in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated student representative bodies from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers unions as well as other bodies relevant to postgraduate education.

a. Is the approach set out in this document the best way for the funding bodies to respond to concerns about the consistency and quality of RDPs?

We are in full support of the improving standards document, having been involved since the conception of the project. Now there is a formal consultation taking place we are keen to come back with our input following the responses made by higher education institutions. We appreciate the need to make the standards more cross-disciplinary as well as compatible with part time and overseas students as raised from the informal consultation.

In light of these issues being raised, there are further points to add from this that we have become aware of. The first point that has been identified is that the standards are geared largely towards the traditional PhD even though there are a many other research degrees. Other research degrees such as the New Route PhD, Professional Doctorates, MSc by research and MRes should comply with these standards to some extent. Of course some of these qualifications are considered as taught courses in their own right so the standards will need to be implemented as appropriate by institutions. However, although some of the standards (such as completion rate and examination method) do not have the flexibility to apply to other research degrees and would only apply to the traditional PhD. We would therefore suggest minor amendments are made to accommodate this.

While we still see there is a need to allow the framework to be generic enough for each institution to apply to its research degree programmes as appropriate, we are in strong support of using this approach in order to maintain consistency. We are particularly in support of this in areas where provisions are considered by postgraduates as largely ad-hoc particularly in terms of training, induction, grievances/feedback and supervision arrangements. Standards at national level are highly important in regulating such provisions and meeting the expectations of the postgraduate.

b. Are the individual threshold standards and guidelines for good practice appropriate?

We welcome the individual threshold standards and the categories they are set within in the majority of cases. However, we have further suggestions which we would recommend adding to the standards in addition to our opinion as to where the thresholds should be set for minimum standards. Our suggestions are as follows:

  • While supervisory training and supervisory teams will overcome the problems of new and inexperienced supervisors, we would still encourage quality checks and refresher courses be set for the experienced supervisors. This will come against problems where such supervisors can take control of their research students as well as compromise important standards where they may consider their own ways to be better.
  • Like other staff development programmes we would support the involvement of QAA in auditing the supervisor training as well as other standards to ensure that research students are being given the services they require. Further to this the auditing process will require transparency.
  • Training in research degree programmes is important to the postgraduate in terms of identifying what qualifications they will obtain and how they will improve their career. However, training should be conducted in a way that the research degree is not being consistently spoon fed to research students. During the course of a research programme, the student will need to develop empowerment and ownership over their work. It is therefore necessary that training is appropriately timed and geared in a way that research students will be in preparation for this right at the start. We would question whether the supervisor in section 6(a) is the appropriate person to decide on the students training. We would recommend a tutor being involved who has expertise in training researchers. This will ensure that all research students get the training they require, which is not limited by the supervisor.
  • Section 4(d) indicates a maximum of 6 research students are to be supervised by academic staff. We would question the validity of this threshold given that an academic may be part time, dedicated to many other special duties and may only be the second supervisor of a number of those six students. It is not at all necessarily the case, given such scenarios, that an academic member of staff is going to have the time available to fulfil supervisory duties for up to 6 students or more. We would suggest a better approach where academics are allocated supervisory responsibilities in order that all research students are provided with up to one hour of supervisory attention per week as required be that from one of their supervisors or all of them.

c. What, if any, are appropriate numerical targets for a critical mass of students, postdoctoral researchers and research active staff in different disciplines? (See section 2a of Table 1, and the notes to it.)

We support the need for a research student, in the general case, to have a minimum number of other students and research active staff such that they are in communication with a suitable research environment. This will avoid isolation problems for full time students as well as help them to access the research they need to. For part time students, regular opportunities should be available so that they can communicate with their peer group at a local level.

Where possible we would consider at least 5 other research students in the same research area as well as 2 research active staff to be present. We appreciate in certain cases this will not be possible although we would stress the need to facilitate good outside communications where this does take place in order to overcome the lack of research environment at local level.

d. Are there any aspects of the good practice guidance which should be threshold standards, or vice-versa?

There are a number of instances where we would suggest that standards of good practise become minimum standards from the postgraduate perspective. There are some that we would more strongly recommend than others as far as this is concerned. We have listed the following standards which we would wish to see become minimum standards backed up with reasons for doing so:

  • 1(b) We are greatly supportive of the many institutions that have introduced codes of practise for research degrees in recent years for which we have published our own guidelines [1]. The text in itself, however, often has little meaning to the individual postgraduate and can come across as part of a set of bureaucratic procedures. It is essential to communicate the point that this code exists in the interests of the student and the supervisor. We would wish to see therefore that minimum standards are there to communicate the purpose of the code of practise and allow it to be implemented. Without such standards, the code of practise largely stands dormant.
  • 2(c) With regards to facilities we consider IT and Library access essential [2] to allow a research student to carry out their work. We therefore suggest that this facility is available to suit the needs of both full time and part time students and would request a minimum standard states this.
  • 3(b) and (c) In these set standards, attention is given to accurate advertising of research degree programmes and the admissions process to be run by suitably experienced staff. We note current QAA institutional audits, which will consider accurate advertising of courses and would recommend that (c) is set as minimum so that it is appropriately in line with the standards that QAA are currently auditing. It is possible that the institutional audits will cover research degree programmes so consistency here would be beneficial. Further to this we would suggest that (b) is also set to a minimum so that there can be promotion of equality of opportunity, which we seek to promote. This would be in line with one of the main research competence standards set out in the current Research Assessment review. Accessibility for postgraduates will play an important role in this.
  • 5(d) It has been our experience that unsuccessful viva examinations have become a problem to the student when the examiners have failed to supply a fully comprehensive report as to why they do not recommend the award of a doctorate. This creates questions as to whether the outcome of the viva examination was fair. In light of this we would strongly advise a minimum standard is set so that examiners to produce independent reports before the viva to justify whether there was any bias or procedural irregularity. This will then provide greater transparency should the outcome have grounds for appeal.
  • 7 Confidential and impartial feedback mechanisms are essential for research students who are experiencing difficulty with supervisors. We consider the current standards (none of which are minimum) to lack structure and do not maintain such requirements. It has commonly been our experience that individual departments do not offer the advice or support that is necessary when they may be partial to the supervisor whom the student is uncomfortable with. In some cases, confidential advice outside the department is hard to seek within an institution. We therefore urge a structured procedure is in place that will ensure staff responsible will maintain both confidentiality and impartiality, which requires them being in a position to do so. As well as this the procedure should be effectively communicated to research students so that they are aware of how they may need to pursue a complaint. We therefore suggest structured, impartial, confidential and well communicated feedback mechanisms are set as a minimum standard.

e. Are the proposals for assessment the best way for institutions to engage with the programme, while still confirming to the joint funding bodies that the threshold standards are being met?

We have continued to emphasise that research quality does not bear any relation to the quality of how research degree programmes are delivered. Further to this, teaching quality is also another matter in itself. It is important that somewhere QAA is involved in auditing the maintenance of standards in research degree programmes and that they specifically stand out as a distinctive area of auditing. We would encourage institutions implementing the standards in a way which is suitable for them, however, we would wish to see consistency in the way these are assessed by QAA. It is essential that the auditing process shows there is consistency in the standards being implemented in different departments as well as procedures being set at institutional level. We would also wish the audit process to include feedback from both part time and full time research students.

References

1. Guidelines on codes of practise for Postgraduate Research, 1992, National Postgraduate Committee, ISBN 1-899997-00-8.
2. Guidelines on Accommodation and Facilities for Postgraduate Research, 1995, National Postgraduate Committee, ISBN 1-899997-04-0.