Susan Bassnett: The loneliness of the foreign postgrad

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The Independent Online

When I was a student, my tutor used to say that a postgraduate was someone who hadn't realised that the party was over and it was time to go home. Certainly, there weren't many students around in the 1960s who seemed intent on gaining a doctorate.

These days, it is quite different. Thousands of students are enrolled as PhD candidates in UK universities. Postgraduate numbers, unlike undergraduate figures, are not regulated by government targets. You can't recruit hundreds more undergraduates on to degree programmes because the Government keeps those numbers tightly capped, but you can recruit as many postgraduates as you can stuff into a seminar room. And the students apply in droves, because grade inflation in universities means there are thousands more students every year with first-class degrees, so having a Masters or, better still, a doctoral degree, can give you the competitive edge.

Or rather, it can give you the competitive edge if you can afford it, and not many UK students can. For postgraduate fees are high, and there is no guaranteed funding. If you are an overseas student, the fees are astronomical - anywhere from £4,000 to £15,000 a year. But driven by the prospect of a doctorate opening all kinds of doors, students flock to study in the UK. The Prime Minister has actively encouraged organisations such as the British Council to recruit as many international students as possible, and it's certainly true that the fees help to balance universities' books and ensure vice-chancellors' offices are regularly redecorated. But what is easily overlooked is what happens to these thousands of students as they wander the corridors of UK universities, for, unlike in the US, there are no taught courses for doctoral students, and once they register, they are supposed to work alone with just the guidance of a supervisor to steer them along.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has just published a code of practice for postgraduate research programmes, and already academics have started moaning about the dead hand of the QAA reaching out to strangle research. I never thought I would be defending the QAA, but I'm delighted they have taken this step, even though the code is couched in the usual pussy-footing language that avoids any unpleasant confrontations. Postgraduates often have a terrible deal and, until now, universities have been able to avoid accountability. International students come off worst. Many universities are so desperate to bring in the fees that they accept anybody to do anything, regardless of supervisory expertise and the existence of any kind of research community. The code requires universities to involve at least two people in any decision to admit a postgraduate. In some places at the moment, all you need to do is send a letter to Dr Bloggs, pay the money and you're in. Small wonder that the majority of complaints about failed PhDs come from international students who should never have been let in.

In my own small department, we have turned down innumerable applications from people desperate for a doctorate but with no idea of what topic they wanted to research, some with dodgy references and others with written English so inadequate that they need remedial help. A number of these candidates have been recruited (goodness knows by what process) by some worthy government organisation, and apply already sure of three years' funding, regardless of the lack of topic or talent. Every one we reject finds a place instantly in another, more cash-strapped institution, even some in the Russell Group.

Thank goodness that the QAA is at least addressing the question of quality and standards, and trying to ensure that universities deliver what they promise. For postgraduates are not just add-ons, who can be chatted to over the occasional pint every few months. Supervising postgraduates is time-consuming and labour-intensive. If it's not done effectively, the consequences can be dire. It is self-evident that universities should want to maintain quality at all levels. But the fat fees paid by students who want the title of doctor but aren't equipped to achieve it have led many institutions to turn a blind eye. The QAA code is a belated step in the right direction, however unpopular it might be in these tough financial times.

The writer is professor of comparative literature at Warwick University