A higher degree of loneliness

Postgraduates complain that they feel academically and socially isolated. Stephen Pritchard discovers why
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The Independent Online
Postgraduates are a vital part of any academic community. Students taking higher degrees will go on to form the bulk of universities' professional researcher and teaching staff.

But postgraduates often complain that they are undervalued by their institutions. Taught postgraduate courses, in particular, bring in high fees. Many students pay their own way, with a Masters degree costing about pounds 2,350 for home or EU students; applicants from the rest of the world will usually pay three times as much - more in laboratory-based subjects.

In some cases, universities have ignored the special needs of postgraduate students in the rush to expand a lucrative area of higher education. One consequence is that postgraduates often feel isolated. This can affect the quality of their work.

Research students, especially in the arts and humanities, may work alone in the library for long periods of time, and it is common to feel cut off at some point during a PhD.

Students on taught courses should fare better. However, according to a report just published by the educational charity Heist, they do not.

In some ways, the lot of the Masters student is worse than that of the researcher, according to the report, Taught Postgraduate Education: the Student Experience.

Many students enrol on taught postgraduate courses expecting their way of life to mirror their time as undergraduates, explains the report's author, Ian O'Neill. Especially on the social side, this is not always the case.

"Students are not getting the opportunity to meet people or mix with people," he says. "The social side is not as good. I'm not saying you do a taught postgraduate course to party or have a good time. But you're not getting the same degree of interaction."

In part, this is because fewer students on taught postgraduate courses live in university accommodation. First-year undergraduates will almost always live in halls of residence, and this allows them to build a social circle.

Nationally, only 14 per cent of taught postgraduates live on campus, according to Heist. A total of 36 per cent live in private rented accommodation, 27 per cent in their own homes and 15 per cent with parents. Students who are funding their own postgraduate course are more likely to study locally, to reduce costs. These students may "commute" to college, only travelling to the campus to work.

Academic factors can also contribute to feelings of isolation. Students on taught courses can fall into a grey area between undergraduate study and pure research. They do not have the same structured academic programmes as undergraduates, and are expected to work independently much of the time. But nor do they feel fully integrated into the research community.

Heist's research suggests that students would fare better if they took more time selecting courses, and learnt more about the realities of postgraduate study before applying. The report also calls on universities to provide more detailed information about the content of postgraduate programmes and a better "feel" for postgraduate life.

"Some taught postgraduate students thought they would receive the same level of teaching as undergraduates, but some [courses] teach only a few hours a week," says Mr O'Neill. "They are isolated academically for the first time."

Students surveyed for the report wanted more small-group teaching sessions, easier access to their tutors and quicker assessment of coursework.

Some students also felt they would have gained from an induction period, similar to "freshers' weeks" for undergraduates. At the least, this should include time for students to find their way around the campus. Training in computing and library skills would be welcomed, too.

This should be geared specifically to the needs of postgraduates. All too often, according to Heist, universities assume that students have acquired library or research skills during their first degrees. However, the techniques needed for Masters-level courses, which include a research- based dissertation, differ from those needed for undergraduate work.

Dedicated facilities, in particular social space geared towards postgraduates, could also help overcome some of the problems the Heist report identifies.

This view is supported by Professor Bob Burgess, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education. Graduate schools in particular can provide a focal point for higher degree students, regardless of their course or area of research.

The number of UK universities with graduate schools is growing annually. But these are expensive facilities which take time to establish. Non-academic facilities, such as a graduate social centre or bar, can also help to build a stronger community. Demand is also growing for graduate halls of residence, which Heist identified as increasing postgraduates' satisfaction with their courses.

But even smaller-scale projects, such as study rooms or common rooms in departments can reduce isolation, both socially and academically, if they bring postgraduates into regular contact with their peers.

"Some universities are providing special work rooms so that all postgraduates have to work with the institution," says Professor Burgess. "That will strengthen the position of postgraduates."