Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Fees conundrum

It seems to me that research students are the Cinderellas of the university system. In these days of increasingly transactional relationships between institutions and their students, the 'value' offered for my £ thousands paid out in each year is far easier to measure if you're a) full-time b) on campus and c) part of a taught degree course.

In my field, new full time undergrads and taught postgrads know they'll get, say 120 lectures a year; maybe 60 seminars and can take advantage of a fixed amount of staff office hours. They'll know they have to complete perhaps 10 assignments between October and May and then sit four or five exams. They'll also have access to the library and, more important today, to online library resources that universities pay thousands for each year.

Without doubt, the more the student puts in, the more they get out of their experience - and it's relatively easy to conduct a cost/benefit analysis.

But what about research students - and should universities be thinking about a different model for charging research student fees?

I'm exceedingly relieved that I started my PhD before the student fees hike. I'm self-funded and my fees come out of income while I work alongside my study.

What I get for those fees is access to a research office with a PC and a phone (UK calls only); library membership; invitations to attend/participate in departmental reseach seminars; an annual researcher presentation event and, most importantly, access to two supervisors who help guide my study. I also get a research allowance of £180 per year - though am very limited in what I can use this for.

As a mature student, living 30+ miles from campus, registered as part-time and working full time: I use the office rarely - I'm really only ever there on about 24 days when I'm teaching in the academic year - and I'm not actually doing much PhD stuff those days! Library membership is vital and valuable - though 95% of my use is online. Research seminars tend to happen on a weekday afternoon so it's rare I can attend and the research presentation event covers a wide scope from economics through political science to history so is interesting, but frustrating too. I don't pay a full fee, but nor do I pay half of what full timers shell out.

The key 'value' comes from the student/supervisor relationship - yet no matter how heavily or lightly I lean on my mentors, the price remains the same. However frequently or infrequently I use the campus facilities, the price remains the same - and however much or little I choose to engage with the department, the price I pay remains the same.

In these economically turbulent times, would it not make sense for institutions to be more flexible in their charging structures - not just for existing researchers, but to help attract those who will undoubtedly be put off from even applying in the future by stratospheric fees and the ever-increasing feel that institutions are being asked to do more with less?

If I was looking to attract student now, I'd have a menu of charges related to needs:
  • A core fee would buy you access to the library and, say four supervisory meeting per year;
  • An enhanced fee could secure office space.
  • Departmental student events would be based on, and built around, student demand and charged on a per-event basis. They would also happen at a time convenient for students, not just departmental staff.
  • Additional supervisorys could be purchased - £X per hour - book three get one free etc.
  • A premium fee would offer presentation and critique opportunities, and perhaps support to attend external events and be part of a wider network.
These are just top of the head thoughts, but it's time institutions became more commercial and more savvy in responding to student needs rather than continually being driven by a 'one size fits all' process. Some of us only need/want or can afford the 'institution-lite' approach to a PhD, while others will want full immersion and a helping hand all along the way. Assuming we set a base level of support that is sufficient to get someone through this research apprenticeship, do universities have to apply the same cost structure to everyone?

No private business would operate in the way our universities do today. The current fee/value model, and indeed wider funding model seems less sustainable year by year.

Is it time for institutions to dare to do something different?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Time for a great leap forward

So I've been at this PhD thing for two years and nine months now - very part-time, and generally fitted in between work commitments, the demands of a full family life and, more recently, my own first forays into academic teaching. Even now, I'm updating this while waiting for someone to fulfil a request for information on a corporate intranet site I'm writing/editing copy for. Up until very recently I was motoring on at my own pace on the PhD, reading everything in sight, covering dusty second hand books in sticky book marks and highlighting searing insights across dozens of learned journal papers.

I would have been quite happy being locked in a dusty room for a few years while I pulled everything together into a satisfyingly heavy thesis with just the occasional surfacing to sit at the feet of my supervisor and make the necessary course corrections to ensure what emerged actually had some scholarly merit.

But my university doesn't work like that any more. There comes a point where all Brunel researchers have to be 'confirmed' in their study - what follows may be beatification or even canonisation for all I know, but what matters now is that I have a hurdle to get over before I can set my sights on writing up my core chapters and defending my view of the world - or at least Eisenhower's decision making around the policy issues of outer space.

This new step was rather dropped on us in May and probably caused more angst than it should - not least for those in the cohort whose draft theses were more or less complete and who had their sights set more on an external viva than an internal approval of their work. I'm not quite there yet, but I've set a target of having my thesis complete by the end of 2013. I just want to get on and spend my days writing up my two research trips and pinpointing the gaps that will probably lead to a third trip to the US next year before I can finalise my not-so-grand opus.

But now I find that I have to go through confirmation and quite soon - September 17 is D Day for a suite of documents ranging from my abstract, methodology and outline to a substantial piece of work that I'll have to defend internally. No doubt it will be good practice for the real thing, but coming on top of a Research Presentation event and Annual Review, it feels like a bureaucratic chore.

It also feels like a devaluing of the student/supervisor model that seems to work pretty well. I have two supervisors, meet with one regularly and get good arm's length feedback from the second. The last two years has been a little like peeling skin from an onion: I started with one idea which has been refined, nuanced and focused so that what I'm now working on bears some resemblance to the original research idea, but has a more workable scope, and goes deeper rather than wider into the subject.

I'm uncomfortable with the confirmation process. It appears to be, to some degree, arse covering for the university - a process where they can reassure themselves that research students are going to complete. But shouldn't that control, that accountability and that sense of whether a research project is worthy of a PhD come from research supervisors? This new process seems to imply a lack of trust that supervisors can judge the students they're supervising with sufficient objectivity. For me, 40-something, self-funded and with a passion for my subject, I will complete. However, I feel I'll do so in spite of the system, not because of it.