Simon Felton

Bullying is often associated with compulsory education and the workplace but extends to both further and higher education and can be particularly prevalent at postgraduate level where it may often be more subtle. The National Postgraduate Committee recognises that wherever it occurs in the postgraduate student experience it is harmful to all involved - both the victim and perpetrator. Bullying can lead to self-doubt, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, self-harm and sometimes suicide.

Postgraduate students face not only bullying from their peer group but also from lecturers and supervisors and for those teaching -students that are taught. Bullying at a demanding academic level and environment and at a period when study is often self-directed can lead to serious affects on academic progression and personal achievement. The National Postgraduate Committee supports the National Union of Students´ definition of Bullying as any action taken which makes another feel intimidated, excluded, or unsafe. We also believe that bullying has a hugely adverse effect on students´ academic achievement and social, physical and mental wellbeing and all institutions should seek to support postgraduate students holistically by furthering harassment and bullying disciplinary procedures and by changing the culture and ethos of the postgraduate experience.

In the postgraduate student experience, bullying can take various forms and levels of transparency and often may not include students´ peers. Different types of postgraduate experience, such as research or taught programmes, different disciplines and registration as either a home or international student can aggravate the experiences of bullying. Bullying behaviour can include:

  • Constant criticism or trivialising of concerns and assessment;
  • Deliberately excluding students;
  • Teasing or belittling of student opinions or suggestions;
  • Putting down students in front of other staff or a class.

Different postgraduate student experiences of bullying are highlighted below which highlight the subtlety and variation in experiences postgraduate students face:

Postgraduates who teach- Postgraduates who teach are doing a professional activity that will place demands on their own programme and will often require significant time for preparation. Postgraduates here can experience bullying from the students they teach with students being surly, aggressive or even sexually harassing. The intimacy of such groups, in contrast to large lectures, can allow students to exhibit behaviour they would not risk in larger groups. Increasing numbers of mature students can also mean postgraduates may find themselves teaching people who are many years their senior in age or experience.

For many postgraduates admitting the problem exists is tantamount to admitting that they have failed... they legitimately feel that it harms their chances of being offered more teaching (Cutner and Brook, 1997, High Noon in the Lecture Theatre, THES).

The close relationship of postgraduates with staff can further aggravate the experiences of bullying and force students to not report bullying to ensure more teaching or less stigma in the department or university. Research students are particularly at risk from this in their relationship with their supervisor(s) - academic(s) that oversees and supervises their work.

The Student Supervision experience - A research students´ experience of supervision is often a personal one that develops over time (usually 3 - 4 years) with an academic that can be compared to master and apprentice. Often this relationship can be prone to bullying through a supervisor´s demands on a student or the students inability or inexperience to recognise such demands as bullying. For international students this can be particularly difficult as relationships with academics vary in style and behaviour. As students are not employed they can fall victim to capricious supervisors who believe a student is `lucky to be there´ and not regard excessive behaviour or demands as bullying.

I did not want to raise the problems with my supervisor or department as it was so small for risk of being seen as a troublemaker and in this field of research it would damage my future career opportunities( John, PhD graduate).

Postgraduate course experience - Some disciplines are prone to bullying due to the style of the postgraduate student experience. In disciplines such as science where lab based activity and group research is more likely to take place postgraduates can face bullying from their peers. This bullying can often be subtle with use of facilities, sabotage, cliques and exclusion taking place without overt emphasis. Bullying can also be used to demean fellow postgraduates and to claim credit for research others have completed.

Dealing with bullying for postgraduate students can be challenging and there are various options open to postgraduate students facing bullying but most importantly responsibilities on universities to support postgraduate students.

For postgraduates who teach there are institutional guidelines and controls which can regulate behaviour and these can be used alongside departmental support. The experience of students however can often be to put up with bullying to ensure further teaching opportunities or to prevent being labelled a `troublemaker´ and jeopardising future career opportunities. Institutions must ensure therefore that staff and students are aware that discrimination includes taking any action such as bullying, harassment or discrimination against a student that makes a complaint and the potential personal and university liability of any such discrimination. The awareness of such stringent punishment for bullying would help create a culture in which postgraduate students could safely raise issues of concern.

For research students experiencing bullying through supervision, using institutional guidelines and complaints procedures is an option, but one that may raise the issue of being labelled a `troublemaker´. In some circumstances postgraduates should seek departmental support or in joint supervision, the support of a second supervisor. This is not always possible and for some circumstances mediation or seeking student union or academic union support such as UCU support can help. Those moving onto research study should consider student-supervisor agreements as a guide to expectations and obligations as a tool to highlight what will be accepted by all parties and behaviour warranting complaints.