CQ: Seasonal Cheer or Chill?

Chair Quarterly, Written by Prof Mick Fuller, UKCGE Chair 

CQ: Seasonal Cheer or Chill?

As I sit and ponder on things that have happened in the last 3 months or so I am minded to muse that it has been a mixed bag” of cheer and chill at our institution but that on balance for the postgraduate sector of Higher Education there is much to look forward to in 2014 to mix with the ever present and growing expectation from our new postgraduate students, supervisors and from our pressured” institutions.

The UK pgr sector has been gripped” with expectation as the AHRC, EPSRC and NERC announced their 2013 funding round decisions for doctoral training which will set the national picture for the next 5 yrs or so. I’m sure many of us have had both congratulatory and Dear John….” emails recently! The continued emphasis from the Research Councils has been for the development of inter-institutional partnerships both between HEI’s and with external future employers of doctoral graduates. Whilst full lists have yet to be published by all of these RCs we now know whether we got funded or not and the cheer or chill” is setting in. Personal observation tells me that the post92 sector still struggles to convince most of the RC’s of their ability to provide strong doctoral training partnerships with virtually no post92 HEI’s funded by the RCs except in the Arts and Humanities. Inevitably the consequence of this is a continued concentration of RC funded doctoral training into fewer research intense institutions. This raises the spectre of the two-tier” doctoral training concept – i.e. the well-resourced and the less well-resourced and it challenges HEIs to ensure that two-tiered systems do not develop in their institution. More than ever before it seems to me that there is a need for HEI’s to have minimum benchmarks for the rights and privileges of all doctoral students irrespective of how they are funded. Having published these in my own institution back in 2006 I know how they get pushed to the limit especially as space and availability of supervisors become limiting! If you are on an increasing PGR trajectory then the demand for desks and appropriate study space soon outstrips that available within a Department and suddenly you find yourself with a demand for central provision. This demand can become very vociferous from international students who perceive themselves as paying higher fees than their home/​eu colleagues (a misconception by the way!).

Of course HEI’s which are feeling overlooked or undervalued in national doctoral schemes are increasingly turning their attentions to other markets” for their supply of doctoral students including internal sources, the EU Marie-Curie ITN’s and International students and none of these sources are easy. Internal funding will depend on the success in the REF and the amount of RDP Qr money received from HEFCE and the weighting introduced last year will continue to fuel the research concentration agenda. In Europe the success rate for MC ITNs has consistently been less than 10–12% (100 awards from 1100 applications in 2012) but Horizon2020 promises 1900M Euros for doctoral training with a desire to have a million researchers by 2020. There is no doubt that this scheme will be heavily targeted by all UK and other country HEIs in the near future, so we can expect even greater competition and the bar to be raised! Marie Curie demands partnerships in the same way that the RCs do and it is very clear that this approach is here to stay!

It is true there are large International PhD scholarship markets” including the middle East, Brazil, China, India and Nigeria that HEI’s can target but these come with caveats and health warnings”. Superficially they are attractive paying large tuition fees and bench fees but many are difficult to establish track records with and require investment in diplomacy and in-country visits to get to a level of sustainable student flow. Then there are challenges associated with English Language, Visas and of course whether or not the students are research-ready to start their programmes of study when they arrive or whether they need an extensive investment in research methods training before becoming autonomous researchers. This last point is a similar or the same challenge associated with a Doctoral Training Partnership student coming straight from Undergrad to doctoral study and again begs the question as to how the Institution is structuring its doctoral provision in the early months/​year of a student’s journey. The term structured PhD programme” is appearing everywhere

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the recent changes to RC funding of doctoral students and the MC ITNs have focussed the minds of more and more academics on the needs for research training in the early years of doctoral study. Theoretically this should make the job of Directors of Graduate Schools/PVC’s Research easier as they try to implement change and embed cultures of training” in doctoral education. I think that the end of the Master:Apprentice model is not yet in sight, but the bell is definitely tolling!!

If any of the above discussion resonates with you or your colleagues then I urge you to consider attending the UKCGE Summer conference (in Dublin) which is targeting doctoral training structures and/​or the ICPD4 (Cardiff) which is considering the growing demand for in-service Professional Doctorate courses across the globe.

With respect to postgraduate taught provision, I suspect that most institutions in the UK have seen a dramatic drop in PGT numbers this year, which compounds a shortfall last year. This was totally predicted by the sector and heralded in the HEC and now defunct 1994 Group reports and recognised by HEFCE in its own report earlier this year. As we go to Press everyone is awaiting the HEFCE announcement of the £25M funding in its PSS (postgraduate support scheme) and then websites will be awash with announcements of scholarships and bursaries for PGT courses. This probably the single-most important piece of good news” for PGT in recent years and reinforces that PGT is important in HEFCE and BIS eyes and consolidates on the earlier HEFCE decision to maintain funding for most PGT courses. The big challenge for all HEIs of course, is how to make PGT recruitment sustainable and ensure that it is accessible to all who have the capability to undertake it and succeed. It is interesting that Horizon2020 will also be offering Loans for EU students to study for a Masters in a country other than their home country and so there are opportunities to promote UK Masters courses in Europe – but beware of the ECTS credits catch! One year UK Masters programmes assigned an equivalence of 90 ECTS (simply calculating 2UK = 1ECTS) may not be attractive to European students who may require 120 ECTS courses to progress to a PhD outside of the UK!

To sum up, it looks as if 2014 will continue to bring immense opportunities for HEIs who place PG at the heart of their institution and for postgraduate students themselves. For our UK readers, enjoy the REF breather i.e. the time between submission and results and for everyone enjoy the forthcoming mid-winter break, recharge your glass, recharge your batteries and a very Happy Advent, Christmas and New Year to you all.


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