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All they want is a room somewhere

Postgraduate students are in a limbo lacking basic work aids. Stephen Pritchard reports
A DESK, a filing cabinet, somewhere to keep books: simple enough requests for an academic researcher. Yet, according to the organisation that represents postgraduate students in the UK, such basics cannot be guaranteed in many universities.

In a paper published this month, the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) argues that the growth of postgraduate student numbers has not been matched by spending on libraries, social facilities or computing resources. Research students, in the arts and social sciences in particular, may not have any space to call their own within departments. The lack of a home base causes isolation from other students and staff. It can make research and any casual teaching students undertake more difficult.

"Good research requires interaction with other researchers," says Jamie Darwen, the general secretary of the NPC. "A lack of space and facilities can make this difficult to achieve, and can cause a damaging loss of morale."

It would be easy to dismiss the NPC's guidelines as rather trivial complaints. But the call for better facilities arises from a basic difference between undergraduate and postgraduate students. This is a difference that has not always been acted on by university administrations, even though postgraduates may represent as much as a quarter of total student numbers.

Postgraduates, especially those on research degrees, occupy a grey area between students and staff. In most cases, they are not employees of the university, but nor are they following the highly structured courses arranged for undergraduates.

"You are expected to be, to some degree, an expert in your field," says Julia Garritt, president of Lancaster University's graduate college association. "You're not going to come out with many profound thoughts sitting in the library with 40 other people."

Postgraduate students are expected to attend conferences and contribute to academic journals, in addition to working on their research. And increasingly, universities are putting pressure on Ph D students to complete their studies within three years. Achieving this requires adequate support.

"If you are expected to have high-quality output, you have to have high- quality input," Ms Garritt says. "At the end of the day, you are expected to be of the standard of your teachers or supervisors."

Top of the NPC's wish-list is office space. Students who have offices find them invaluable, as they can store papers and materials, and colleagues or supervisors can contact them more easily. Researchers who do not often have to rely on the library.,

The committee supports university moves to create specific postgraduate centres, or graduate schools, as they provide a social focus for students. Postgraduates in particular may feel isolated, as much of their time is spent on individual research. Often, student union provision does not meet postgraduates' needs. At Lancaster, for example, the graduate social centre provides quiet study areas and an international students' room with overseas newspapers.

The NPC calls for improved academic facilities and, as important, better access to existing ones. One particular area of concern is computer equipment. Today's postgraduates are expected to produce high-quality reports and presentations, and communication with other researchers relies heavily on electronic mail. Ideally, the NPC would like dedicated facilities for postgraduates.

Library access can also be a problem. Financial pressures have led some universities to restrict opening hours, especially over weekends and during vacations. Libraries that close early in the evening cause problems for part-time students, and most researchers need access during the long vacations too.

Some universities are already working towards better facilities for postgraduates. Last summer, Huddersfield University conducted a survey of its postgraduates; more than 40 per cent replied to the questionnaire. The university has responded by boosting the number of supplementary courses it offers students, and is trying out a swipe-card system to provide access to buildings outside normal office hours.

At University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist), a similar survey by the students' union found that postgraduates were quite satisfied with their facilities. The graduate dean, Ken Singer, believes this is partly because of the large number of graduates at the institution, and partly because they are grouped in a graduate school.

The school handles all non-academic affairs for graduates. But it also provides a social centre and an environment where researchers exchange ideas with colleagues in other fields. "The question of isolation is a very, very important one for postgraduate students," Professor Singer says. "In lab-based departments, they are usually in a lab with other students, but in other cases they are very much on their own. They may not come into direct contact with other students." A simple measure, such as providing coffee rooms, can be a great help; Dr Singer describes morning coffee as one of the most productive parts of the academic day.

Some universities might argue that, with 1,800 postgraduates, Umist can easily afford the best provision. But good facilities can be provided at even the smallest institution if the will is there. At Nene College, in Northampton, there are 108 full-time postgraduates on taught courses, and only 26 full-time and 27 part-time postgraduate researchers. Yet as part of its preparations for full university status, Nene opened a dedicated research centre in February.

The centre brings postgraduate students and staff engaged in research together as equals. It provides computing facilities, space for private study and bookable rooms for seminars. There are also active research interest groups covering the college's fields of expertise.

"There are no formal distinctions drawn between the work of staff and of research students," explains college spokeswoman Amanda Black. "Students are welcome in all the interest groups."

Universities should see good facilities as an investment, rather than a cost, the NPC believes. In an academic world where high-quality research is vital to gain government funding, it could prove to be money well spent.

o Guidelines on Accommodation and Facilities for Postgraduate Research, available from the National Postgraduate Committee, tel: 0115-978 9600.