The high price of good quality

<preform>Postgraduate degrees are subject to a new code - but it will cost, say Howard Green & Stuart Powell</preform>
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The Independent Online

At last the new code of practice for postgraduate research programmes has been published by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Conceived as a way to improve standards for postgraduate degrees, it was initially going to provide threshold standards to separate the wheat from the chaff. But the final document looks rather different from earlier versions. Gone are the quantitative threshold measures, as well as the threat of no funding for some - this will require a completely different mechanism. In their place is a logical document that will provide a context for a light touch audit. The sector has ended up with a very British compromise, which on the surface threatens little and offers something in enhanced quality. You can see it for yourself: the QAA Code of Practice for Postgraduate Research Programmes is posted on www.QAA.ac.uk.

At last the new code of practice for postgraduate research programmes has been published by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Conceived as a way to improve standards for postgraduate degrees, it was initially going to provide threshold standards to separate the wheat from the chaff. But the final document looks rather different from earlier versions. Gone are the quantitative threshold measures, as well as the threat of no funding for some - this will require a completely different mechanism. In their place is a logical document that will provide a context for a light touch audit. The sector has ended up with a very British compromise, which on the surface threatens little and offers something in enhanced quality. You can see it for yourself: the QAA Code of Practice for Postgraduate Research Programmes is posted on www.QAA.ac.uk.

Our concern is no longer whether universities and colleges will consider the content to be sensible for the long-term position of UK research degrees globally. Rather, we are concerned that some institutions will simply not be able to afford to implement parts of the code and will, particularly now that research degree awarding powers have been uncoupled from university status, opt out of providing research degrees altogether.

This may be alarmist. Yet the cost to institutions that deliver relatively few research awards annually may be prohibitive. There are 97 of them that award not many more than 30 postgraduate qualifications a year, and many have fewer still.

First, most institutions will have to devote considerable expense just to implementing and managing their own code. A simple calculation of the cost of the research director, administrative staff, supervisors and the research degree committee would shock anybody. Second, if, as the code suggests, an independent chair for vivas should be introduced as good practice, this will cost money too. Of course, the cost may remain hidden, but in a climate where, increasingly, staff have to account for time and effort, it is likely that it will become more and more apparent. Third, generic training for students and supervisors results in a further cost in a world in which only 30 per cent of research students are subsidised with "Roberts money". The list goes on.

In setting out our concerns we are not denying the importance of the code (in fact, we would rather it had been more robust in places). Rather, we suggest that the code highlights the cost to institutions of providing the required quality and begs the question of whether, and for what reasons, they should continue to subsidise it. There are ways around our concerns through greater collaboration and joined-up thinking. We do not all have to run everything to provide the necessary infrastructure, nor does the code suggest that we should. It simply challenges us to show that we provide quality consistent with its precepts. We are left wondering whether all vice-chancellors and directors of finance will see it that way. Our fear is that some will take the opportunity to question the value of doctoral education in their institution - or to question the cost. We might argue that cost is not the only criterion that needs to be considered - there are other reasons for maintaining research degrees - but the introduction of the revised code does highlight just how expensive sustaining a quality research culture can become.

Professor Green is senior adviser to the vice-chancellor at Staffordshire University and Professor Powell is director of research degrees at the University of Hertfordshire

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