Research matters: ‘The impact of postgraduate research is not always felt immediately’

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The Independent Online

The higher education landscape in our country is changing in ways yet to be fully realised. Applications for places on courses starting this September at UK universities rose again, with applicants keen to secure a place before the increases in undergraduate tuition fees next year.

At the same time, in 2009/10, over 45 per cent more people were enrolled on postgraduate courses compared with a decade ago. It is a testament to the quality of the UK’s higher education institutions that so many see the value of continuing their studies beyond undergraduate level. Research postgraduate numbers are growing and this trend should be encouraged.

Not only are researchers making groundbreaking discoveries, they help boost UK business, attract international investment and enhance our reputation abroad as a country leading the development of new knowledge.

It’s too early to predict what impact any changes in undergraduate recruitment might have on the number of postgraduate students in coming years. But it is something we must be aware of and it’s important to consider the possible consequences. If postgraduate numbers continue to rise as they have done in the last decade, we must ensure there is ample provision to support excellent people and research. Conversely, if increasing student debt deters talented people from pursuing research careers that will threaten a critical part of a great national success.

Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald is a highly respected researcher who, together with her team at the MRC Cancer Cell Unit in Cambridge, was recently awarded an NHS Innovation Prize for developing a new test for oesophageal cancer. Their Cytosponge test can be administered at a GP’s surgery allowing early diagnosis. Patients won’t have to endure an endoscopy in hospital and the NHS will save large amounts of money.

Dr Fitzgerald’s research career started in the UK before she moved to the USA, where she developed a research interest in cancer medicine. Since her return to the UK she has balanced a busy family life with clinical training, award-winning research and undergraduate teaching. Dr Fitzgerald has won numerous accolades and is an example of just one of thousands of researchers who made the smart decision to embark on postgraduate work. Her achievements also illustrate the huge benefits they bring.

The impact of postgraduate research and the talented people who do it is not always felt immediately. Looking at some of the groundbreaking work in computing after the Second World War, for example, it becomes clear just how important it is to nurture the quality of postgraduate education today for the benefits it brings in the long as well as the short term. The technologies we take for granted today, including the internet, would not have become a reality without research conducted half a century ago.

Research Councils UK (RCUK)invests around £3bn annually in UK research. This amount takes in funding for some 19,000 doctoral students, 14,000 research staff and 2,000 research fellows. We firmly believe that our role in attracting, training and managing the next generation of world-class researchers makes a major contribution to the economic and societal well-being of the UK.

Dr Fitzgerald was originally awarded funding from the MRC in 1999. Twelve years later her research is producing results that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer for millions of people. Now is always a crucial time to support postgraduates and we at RCUK believe that investing in people like Dr Fitzgerald is the best way we can ensure a productive, healthy and sustainable future.

More information about Research Councils UK is available at www.rcuk.ac.uk

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