When Dante Micheaux, the award-winning American poet, rocked up in London last year at the age of 29 to undertake his PhD at UCL, he was shocked to discover how postgraduate and overseas students were treated. He had come from a Masters at New York University, which, like UCL, is a large, well-regarded university in a teeming multicultural city that markets itself as a global institution. He expected to find a lot of similarities. And, indeed, there are similarities. Both universities were founded at about the same time, NYU in 1831 and UCL in 1826. Both have large numbers of Nobel prize-winners as staff or former staff, and both do well in the Shanghai international league table of universities. NYU comes in at number 31 and UCL has a ranking of 21. But what bothered Micheaux was the relative neglect of postgraduates in the London institution.
As an overseas student, Micheaux was paying £19,000 a year, yet the students' union at UCL didn't seem to be concerned with welcoming the new postgraduates. The focus was on the freshers' fair, which is aimed at undergraduates; there was no effort to lay on anything for the postgraduates, many of whom came from abroad and whose need is therefore arguably greater than that of the domestic students.
"It was a shock, given that UCL has a large postgraduate population of just under 9,000 students, quite a lot of them international students," says Micheaux. "I thought: 'What is there for me?'"
His experience is not untypical. Postgraduates have long been neglected in British higher education, existing in a kind of no man's land between being a student and becoming an academic. But last year the National Union of Students belatedly woke up to their plight, absorbing the semi-dormant National Postgraduate Committee into its decision-making apparatus and resolving to appoint a research and policy officer devoted to postgraduate issues. That officer is now in post and the NUS is taking postgraduates seriously.
This has coincided with a big increase in the postgraduate population at British universities. There are now more than 500,000, which is almost one quarter of all students, and many come from outside the EU. They have their own needs and problems – the common ones being funding and academic supervision recently joined by training and support for postgraduates who teach.
Micheaux, however, was concerned initially about basic issues, such as how to meet other postgraduates from UCL and how to find out about facilities for postgraduates. He proposed to the UCL students' union that the freshers' fair be renamed the Welcome Fair. "I had been through six years of university in New York, and it didn't appeal to me to attend something called the freshers' fair," he says.
But the name couldn't be changed, the students' union said, as that was how the event was branded. So Micheaux threw himself into working with the students' union to change things. That led to involvement with the NUS at national level. Micheaux represented the UCL postgraduates at the NUS conference, and attended the union's postgraduate conference. He was also elected to the national union's executive as the postgraduate representative for research.
So, an American expert on English poetry whose PhD is on the arcane subject of how the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman influenced the 19th-century British reformer Edward Carpenter, is now active in 21st-century student politics in the United Kingdom.
At UCL, he has tried to get postgraduates more involved in college activities by holding special events for them at weekends, by asking them for feedback and by helping individuals with financial or academic problems. He is hoping to do the same nationally.
One of his plans is to organise research into overseas postgraduates – where they come from and what are their educational backgrounds and needs. "That's the way you design an orientation programme and find out the changes you need to implement," he says. "Considering what we pay, universities need to offer much more support for graduate students. If postgraduates are feeling isolated and not getting the support they need, they are going to leave the university."
Another plan is to get the NUS's international and postgraduate committees talking to one another on the grounds that most overseas students in Britain are postgraduates. "If, over the coming year, I can build a solid relationship between these two, I would look back on some success," says Micheaux.
Although he has good relationships with both his academic supervisors at UCL, he says PhD students in Britain have little, if any, support. This contrasts with the US, where doctoral students spend their first two years doing coursework and have a better relationship with their professors as a result. Academics are much more committed to teaching in America than they are in the UK, he says, because, although they are involved in research, the students are their number one priority. "This is something universities are going to have to concern themselves with, because postgraduates bring in revenue," he says.
Students' unions are going to have to change too. In the past, postgraduates at UCL were organised separately from the undergraduates. Then the two groups were brought together on the grounds that postgraduates would be more included, but that hasn't worked, according to Micheaux. "They're not making the effort to include us," he says.
"Students' unions are going to have to realise they are dealing with a unique group of people who are adults with responsibilities. After that, they are students. A PhD student with a child can't go off on a trip for the weekend because of childcare. They can't stay up all night drinking because they have a nine-to-five job, and can only do research at weekends and in the evenings."
The other postgraduate representative at the NUS this coming academic year is Paul Tobin, who has cut his teeth in student politics as president of the University of Sheffield's Union of Students and who helped to produce the NUS's guide "Engaging Postgraduates in the Students' Union". He says it is hard for students to find out what the funding opportunities are, and the application process is time-consuming. So he wants the NUS, perhaps in concert with another organisation, to produce a definitive guide to where the sources of money are, for which students, and at which universities. "There needs to be a first stop where you find out about postgraduate studies," he says. "International students especially are not picking up on the opportunities that exist back in their home countries."
Facts and figures
* Postgraduate education brings in significant income for British universities. The largest numbers of overseas postgraduates come from China, India, Nigeria, the US and Greece.
* Around half of all Masters students and more than 40 per cent of research students come from overseas. International postgraduate numbers doubled between 1998 and 2007.
* The largest number of overseas postgraduates are concentrated in the research-intensive Russell Group of universities such as the London School of Economics, Oxford and Manchester. Thirty per cent of overseas postgraduates study at new universities, the institutions that became universities after 1992.
* Overseas postgraduates choose Britain due to the high quality of education and to improve their English. They, in turn, help to make UK campuses more international by exposing students to a range of cultures and viewpoints.
* Some international students have a tough time adapting to British ways. They may find culture shock and language differences make everyday activities, such as catching a bus, hard.
* Given the high fees they pay, some overseas postgraduates may spend a lot of time studying rather than socialising or volunteering.
* Some overseas students find UK higher education unfriendly, and cut themselves off. Some experience racism and xenophobia.
Source: "Engaging Postgraduates in the Students' Union", NUS