Graduate school comes of age

Universities are sprucing up their higher degree programmes, writes Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
Universities are injecting a new professionalism into postgraduate studies. Pressure from the research councils to increase the number of doctorates completed within four years, along with the rigours of the research assessment exercise, has prompted a growing number of institutions to look again at the way higher degrees are organised.

Many are putting graduate schools at the centre of this process. According to the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), 33 universities and one college of higher education now have graduate schools, A further 23 are committed to introducing them.

Graduate schools were high on the agenda at this week's UKCGE conference. The council's report on graduate schools puts the case for a strong, possibly interdepartmental structure to "champion" the cause of postgraduate work.

Graduates account for 15 per cent or more of the student population in most of the "old" universities, and the former polytechnics are also increasing their higher degree intakes.

Graduates' needs differ from those of undergraduates, and graduate schools can lead efforts to provide research space. They also provide a social focus; doctoral students in particular can be very isolated.

Graduate schools are developing a key role in ensuring quality. In the United States, an important part of the graduate school's function is to defend the interests of research and postgraduate training.Some UK academics believe similar protection may be needed here, as a result of the expansion of undergraduate numbers.

Ensuring quality means improving the postgraduate experience, in particular intraining and resources. Better, dedicated facilities help students to complete courses more quickly, and a graduate school, especially if it combines departments, can act as an independent arbiter of quality. The graduate school should also provide links between departments and organisations that hire postgraduates, allowing feedback on the skills and qualities that employers are looking for.

Training, both in personal transferable skills and in research methods, heads the agenda at many graduate schools. To meet the research councils' goals for improved PhD completion rates, universities are having to invest in formal training for research students in the skills and methods they will need to produce a thesis.

Such moves are meeting with success. Some 19 per cent of students who started an ESRC-funded PhD between 1973 and 1975 completed within the research council target of four years; of those that started their courses in 1989, 73 per cent completed on time.

The rise in formal tuition for postgraduates brings a significant administrative and teaching workload. Increasingly, universities are looking towards graduate schools as a base for these programmes.

Many schools deliver other courses, for example skills for postgraduates who take on casual teaching work, or modules aimed at Masters students. MRes degrees, with their emphasis on research training, will also benefit from the facilities that a graduate school can offer.

Imperial College London set up its first graduate school this January in the School of the Environment, and will be looking at areas such as computer-based learning for MSc courses. At Nottingham University, the need to meet employer and research council demands for postgraduate training was one of the reasons for founding the graduate school. From this autumn, it will offer generic training to engineering students taking the MRes degree. This will be extended to other disciplines over the next few years.

At Birmingham University, with 5,000 postgraduates, almost a third of the students are taking higher degrees. According to the pro-vice chancellor, Professor Graham Upton, the primary motivation for creating a graduate school is "to ensure that we are providing an environment in which postgraduates can work", but he agrees that the drive towards formal research training was also a factor. "There are issues in terms of cost-effectiveness and efficiency in training which go across the old faculty divisions," he says.

At Sheffield, which founded its graduate school two years ago, the emphasis is also on promoting research. As at Birmingham, this goes hand in hand with providing support for postgraduates. Sheffield's graduate school will run its first research training courses this autumn. "We felt it was incumbent on us to offer students more structured training," explains the deputy university secretary, Reg Goodchild.

Initial fears at Sheffield that students would be put off by the formal training commitments were unfounded. In fact, most universities find support for graduate schools - as long as they actually offer something new to their members.

"Staff and students were saying they did not want another layer of bureaucracy," recalls Professor Upton at Birmingham. "If you take a graduate school on just for external promotion, you will be found out."