Strength in unity: Is the NUS finally listening to postgraduates?

Postgraduate students have long been Cinderellas at the booming higher education ball. While much effort has gone into improving the quality of undergraduate education, postgraduates have suffered relative neglect. But now help may be at hand.

The National Union of Students (NUS) is about to embrace the postgraduate cause systematically and seriously for the first time. The development illustrates the union's increasingly professional approach, and how higher education is coping with a much larger and more demanding student population.

"Postgraduates are an important body of students which student unions represent on campus," says Alex Bols, head of education and quality at the NUS. "From the NUS's point of view, it's a body of students we should do more for."

The first step will be an NUS postgraduate students' conference on 19-20 June. It is likely to absorb the semi-dormant National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) fully into its decision-making apparatus. The NPC was set up in 1992, and the two organisations have been discussing for a year merging their representation of postgraduates.

The conference is expected to elect one representative from each of the body of postgraduates who are taught (PGTs) and postgraduate researchers (PGRs) on to the NUS national executive. A revitalised NPC will consist of two PGT representatives, two PGR representatives, and two others from either category. The committee will elect a chair who will sit on the NUS Higher Education Zone committee.

An important item on the conference agenda will be a new national postgraduate policy which, critically, will be implemented by a new full-time NUS research and policy officer devoted to postgraduate issues. The process of appointing someone to the post has begun. The work programme for the new officer summarises the problem areas: lack of a comprehensive charter for postgraduates: quality of supervision; funding; and training and support for postgraduates who teach.

Some seasoned observers think this closer attention to postgraduate needs is not before time. "The NUS doesn't think [about] students over 21," says Professor Howard Green, an academic with long experience of postgraduates and now a senior partner in Postgraduate Directions, a consultancy. "There's little lobbying done on behalf of postgraduates, particularly PGTs. The NUS is 10 or 15 years late."

Part of the difficulty has been that old habits die hard. Thirty or 40 years ago, British universities largely left graduate students to fend for themselves. But recent years have seen two big changes. The first is that, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of full-time and part-time postgraduates has grown to more than 500,000 in 2007/8, almost a quarter of higher education students. Around 16 per cent are studying for doctorates and more than half are taking Masters degrees. More than 125,000 are from outside the EU.

The second big change has been funding. A generation ago, postgraduate students could find financing comparatively easily. Now, however, loans are not available as they are for undergraduates, research councils are stretched, and there are strange anomalies such as PGRs having to pay council tax when they are writing up their work, but not while they are researching.

Higher education institutions have often been slow to realise – as has the NUS – that postgraduates have different needs from undergraduates.

"Postgraduates are there because of career advantages, unlike undergraduates," says Green. "Their requirements are not for bars but for places where they can meet and discuss and talk."

There has been progress. Partly thanks to research by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), conditions for PGRs have improved. The Quality Assurance Agency has a code of practice for postgraduate research programmes, and research councils have sought to address the funding problem."Relatively, it's much better," says Green.

But PGTs have not been so lucky. "PGTs are almost a forgotten part of the student community. Their needs haven't been fully addressed," says Bols. This may seem surprising, given that they are easily the biggest postgraduate group. In a sense, however, that has been part of the problem. Their needs are more diverse and are buried in the multiplicity of institutions they attend. As a result, nobody really lobbies for PGTs. "Who are the people who influence the conditions of PGTs? I'd be hard-pressed to name them," says Green.

The NUS initiative is designed to deal with these deficiencies. The first stage is assessment. The union plans to conduct with the University and College Union a survey of postgraduates. It will also work with the HEA to develop the new postgraduate taught experience survey, due to be launched this year, and disseminate the results of the postgraduate research experience survey.

Relations between PGRs and their supervisors will be investigated. Although some of the friction has dissipated, complaints such as supervisors being changed too often or being hard to communicate with are still too common. The aim is to draw up key principles governing the relationship between supervised and supervisors. One possibility is to emulate the American trend towards using teams of supervisors, thereby lowering the risk that relations between students and staff can break down.

A common complaint by PGTs is that the quality of feedback from institutions is inadequate. Last year's NUS Feedback Amnesty report highlighted the issue and the union expects to include more findings about PGTs in the future. A separate set of issues concerns postgraduates who teach undergraduates. How are they selected? What support and training do they receive? On what basis are they paid for teaching, marking and preparation? How does their pay compare with that of full-time staff?

But this attempt to put in order relations between postgraduates and institutions is coming just as the growth in the postgraduate population is levelling off. Despite reports of a surge in applications this year for postgraduate degrees, the age group of people who are going to do postgraduate degrees will soon get smaller in the UK, and other countries are stepping up their postgraduate education. If numbers are to be maintained in the UK, more postgraduates will probably have to be mature students. And they will be a fresh set of Cinderellas in need of a prince.

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