Serena's story: How one student is demanding a better deal for postgraduates

Postgraduates are a critical part of university business, so it’s time they were given the same support as undergraduates.

Bu Michael Prest
Thursday 12 November 2009 01:00

Postgraduate students who are struggling with the pressures of advanced academic work may find solace in the latest report from the National Student Forum (NSF). Set up last year to reflect the experiences of the 500,000 postgraduates in the UK, the forum argues that, while much progress has been made, the consistency and sometimes the level of support postgraduates receive still lags behind that given to undergraduates.

The forum accepts that the general postgraduate experience is positive. But in this, its second, report, the forum highlights three broad areas of weakness: the infrastructure supporting students was originally developed for undergraduates; support is seen as far too patchy; and support networks are insufficient to prevent isolation.

David Lammy, the minister for higher education, says: "Postgraduate study in this country has grown tenfold in the past decade, but it has not been organised growth. We are delighted it has happened, but domestic and international students have differing expectations. Much of the growth has been driven by faculty in particular universities. Undergraduates have a whole machinery for applying to university. That doesn't apply to postgraduates."

Support for postgraduates is not just a matter of personal satisfaction. It is also increasingly important at the institutional and national levels. They are a significant source of income for universities and can boost the much-coveted research rankings. Improving the skills and productivity of the workforce is critical for the economy, and a priority for government figures such as the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson.

These problems, therefore, have a wider resonance. At the top of the list is finance. The forum reports a lack of access to student loans, poor awareness of the cost of studying, lack of funding opportunities for international students, low awareness of funding sources such as charities, and improving provision for disabled students.

For example, one of the hidden costs of studying is attending conferences, which offer valuable networking opportunities and play a part in reducing the sense of isolation that can accompany arts degrees especially. But departments can be very miserly. "I know people who only go to a conference once a year, and that exceeds the budget that's set by their department," says Serena Trowbridge, a vice-chair of the NSF and PhD student at Birmingham City University.

The variable quality of information, advice and guidance is another problem. Information about different postgraduate courses can be hard to find. There is no single source for all of the postgraduate courses where potential students can compare and contrast those in which they are interested. It can therefore be difficult to work out which courses offer the most suitable career prospects and value – a serious consideration given that Masters courses are vocational, and students often pay for them out of their own pockets.

Another group of specific issues is directly related to the academic quality of the courses. It includes patchy support from and for supervisors, too few teaching opportunities, inadequate integration, poor departmental support for teaching, weak provision of transferable skills such as writing, communicating and presenting, as well as research environments that are politely described as "uninspired".

A common complaint from postgraduates is that when they first arrive at their university the quality of the handbooks they receive is unsatisfactory – that is, assuming they are even given one. The forum's report provides a model handbook that universities might want to adopt.

Among PhD students, supervision ranges from the motivational to the moribund. "I remember saying at a conference that I saw my supervisor every two weeks. Everyone was amazed and I was amazed that they were amazed," says Trowbridge.

Many universities are sensitive to these complaints and are already taking action. "The point of postgraduate education is to be supported," says Professor Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester. "Institutions should think about the basic services they need to offer to enhance the study experience." He argues that there is plenty of advice on how to do this from bodies such as the UK Council for Graduate Education.

Professor Sarah Hainsworth, graduate dean at the University of Leicester, points out that the Quality and Assurance Agency for Higher Education has also set out many of the principles to guide support for postgraduates. The university offers a wide range of support, from English language training for foreign students through an annual festival of postgraduate research, to transferable skills. "What we try to do is equip students to make them employable," says Professor Hainsworth. Leicester has separate handbooks for taught and research postgraduates.

But what students do for themselves is also important. Science and law postgraduates at the University of Leicester have set-up meeting places cheerfully named Café Scientific and Café Lexus. The university has a careers service, but it is not always used as much as might be expected. "You can't make people take advice," says Professor Hainsworth.

Maybe, however, it is possible to provide more consistent support for postgraduates across institutions. The message over and over again from the NSF is that, guidelines or no guidelines, university sensitivity or insensitivity, there is simply not a set of national practices and sources of information that postgraduates can expect and consult.

Maeve Sherlock, chair of the NSF and a graduate student, says: "If you don't go into the system through a formal gateway, you don't know what questions to ask. One of the most useful things you can do for people coming into postgraduate education is to get them to ask the right questions. What's it for? What do you want to do? And in what way? What would the course you want to do look like?"

Serena Trowbridge, 33, is undertaking a postgraduate diploma on "Christina Rossetti's Fractured Gothic" at Birmingham City University. She is a vice-chairman of the National Student Forum (NSF).

"I did an undergraduate degree in English literature and language at King's College, London, straight from school, and a taught Masters in textual studies at the University of Birmingham straight after my first degree. Then I started a PhD, did about six months and realised that I didn't have any funding and didn't know what I was doing. I had to give it up, which was a shame because I had always wanted an academic career.

I then did other things for five or six years. While working, I became editor of The Review Of The Pre-Raphaelite Society and published one or two articles based on the research I had started doing. I started my current PhD while still working, because I wanted to go back to it.

By then, I was close to getting married. So I wrote to all the universities I could feasibly travel to from Birmingham to see if anyone would supervise me on the topic I was interested in. I went with the one that gave me a positive response – Birmingham City University, then the University of Central England. This is the arbitrary way, I think, in which people do tend to start their postgraduate diplomas.

Since then my supervisor has changed and so has my subject. I changed topic because I started looking at representations of Pre-Raphaelitism in fiction and my then-proposed supervisor said he thought there wasn't enough in it, so I carried out an extensive literature review and he then said there was too much for a PhD. So he suggested I do a more detailed literature search, and out of that I became interested in Christina Rossetti. I made the off-the-cuff comment to my supervisor that I could write an entire thesis on the Gothic part of it and he said he thought I could. I'm hoping to submit in February.

I find that when I go to the NSF people are surprised I'm not a 20-year-old. I've been around various institutions, which I think has made me more vocal on the forum. I've been to good departments and it's mostly been a positive experience. I've seen how different institutions do things.

I've been involved with the NSF from the beginning. I was nominated by the National Postgraduate Committee. I subscribed to their emailing list because I was interested in higher education policy, but I was never a political student. That's something I regret, because I'm now so much more involved in higher education policy. One of the emails asked for nominations, so I sent in my CV, and a couple of months later was told I'd been accepted for the NSF."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments