Help your postgraduate students and staff develop their careers, or miss out on research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). That's the blunt message to British universities contained in the HEFCE's recent Review of Research published at the end of August. But departments needn't fear a sudden loss of cash; the HEFCE has yet to work out the fine details, including minimum standards for postgraduate training.
Although no specific standards have been set, some broad themes are already emerging. The HEFCE report finds that universities often neglect their responsibility to advancing young researchers. Claiming that many universities do not give new lecturers enough support in fulfilling their job requirements, such as course development and supervising students, the report concludes that "institutions should be required to submit a staff development strategy as a precondition for the release of research funding."
The HEFCE's move to introduce minimum standards is part of a wider, and welcome, trend, says Jeremy Hoad, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee. The research councils have recently begun to "beef up" their expectations of what institutions should deliver in terms of the postgraduate experience. The changes are expected to be broadly influential. Although the councils don't fund a majority of research students, departments tend to extend those training expectations to all their students. The Wellcome Trust is also keeping an eye on postgraduate student development. The trust is careful to ensure that researchers overseeing its PhD studentships have a good track record in supervising students, says Patricia Chisholm, scientific programme manager in the Wellcome Trust's career development section. Trust-funded departments or laboratories should also have an international reputation for high-quality research and a critical mass of other research workers who will be able to provide support and a collaborative environment, Chisholm tells Next Wave.
Those involved in postgraduate training are concerned that minimum standards should not be too prescriptive. Hoad warns that the transferable skills training which is important to one PhD student may be seen as an unwelcome additional time pressure by others. The emphasis, he believes, should be on "enabling students to recognise their own training needs." Chisholm agrees that flexibility is the key to successful postgraduate training. "It should always be quite an individual thing," she says.
Although money will be used to twist the arms of recalcitrant departments, few are likely to feel the sting of sudden impoverishment. David Pilsbury, head of research policy at HEFCE, says that the prospect of departments losing out financially is "very, very unlikely" to happen. "In many instances ... simply withholding funding is likely to make the situation worse for postgrads" in departments which have not been spending enough on career development, he suggests. Instead, it's likely that unsatisfactory departments will be asked to present HEFCE with proposals for improvement before the council releases that portion of their funding.
What do you think should be part of a minimum package for postgraduate training? Consultation documents are on the Web and responses are required by 8 December 2000. To make your views known, point your browser at www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/default.htm.