On postgraduate education

This post first appeared at the Society of Biology’s blog and was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

I recently stumbled upon an article from the February 9th, 1952 edition (guess why?) of Nature, in which the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds was reported holding forth on ‘Postgraduate Studies in the Universities’. Said VC, Mr C.R. Morris, was reportedly adamant that “young men and women do not… sufficiently realise the importance, or the significance, of the fundamental scientific inquiries proceeding in… university departments.” He also said that “the future of Britain as a great nation, and its future eminence in the sciences themselves, depend upon the maintenance of the high tradition of a university in which all the great fields of human knowledge and speculation are represented in strength.”

Times change. If we consider Morris’ statement as intended to recognise the value of interdisciplinarity, these views still echo true. But on the students themselves, most would agree that today’s cohorts are highly aware of university science and its high quality. In the current climate though, the channelling of students towards academia alone looks increasingly less sensible.

This is one of the issues currently being looked at by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), who are running an inquiry into Postgraduate Education. With the recent criticism of the government for seemingly neglecting this important policy area, there has been much interest in this inquiry. I worked with the Society of Biology to respond to their initial consultation, raising our concerns but also highlighting important strengths and opportunities, in consultation with our memberships. You can read the full submission here (PDF), with key points highlighted in bold. Subsequently, we were invited to take part in a roundtable discussion focussing on the life sciences. This provided an opportunity to discuss some of the issues further with members of the commission and a number of postgraduates from around the UK.

At the session, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, we heard from Professor Julia Buckingham (Pro-Rector (Education & Academic Affairs) at Imperial College London), Dr Malcolm Skingle, (Director of Academic Liaison at GlaxoSmithKline) and Harriet Dickinson (a PhD student and Biochemical Society member from the University of Cambridge), before the floor was opened up for discussion. Some of the key points raised by the speakers, myself and the rest of the group were:

  • The priorities of undergraduates are gearing more and more towards gaining internships and contact with employers. More students are looking ‘away from the bench’ as they see limited opportunities, particularly with fewer individuals able to get funding from e.g. the Wellcome Trust.
  • MSc qualifications are becoming increasingly requisite for entry to PhD programmes, but there are significant financial disincentives for both the individuals and the universities (who, Professor Buckingham said, are “at the end of the day, a business”).
  • There are a variety of ways further study could be made more attractive; financially e.g. no interest charged on student loans whilst still in further education (for current new entrants to the system, interest is inflation-linked even when repayments are not being made) and career-wise e.g. creating clearer career progression pathways.
  • We need to increase fluidity between industry and academia at all levels (Dr Skingle said that the CASE Studentships programme is “amazing” and expressed support for the Doctoral Training Centre model) but that student experience is vital if individuals are to become the institute leaders of the future.
  • Students no longer ‘look down’ on industry, but it can be unclear how to get a clear idea of the opportunities. There is significant concern that if you leave academia you are seen to have ‘jumped ship’, and there are real and perceived difficulties regarding hiring processes in any return to academia.
  • The necessity for postgraduate mobility creates problems for access; there need to be more supportive programmes to provide support.

Professor Buckingham raised the important point that to develop the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ we need to let students “get out” – not be a clone of their principle investigator (PI) – as well as open their eyes to careers outside science and help them to succeed. Harriet made the point that it is difficult even to get PI/institutional support for gaining transferrable skills such as learning foreign languages, and one of the other delegates expressed frustration that his North American collaborators are facilitated to develop entrepreneurial and business skills; opportunities he felt were closed to him in his UK programme. The criticism of ‘funnelling’ to pure academia has been growing recently and was echoed by Dr Skingle, who outlined the essential skills required for graduates and postgraduates to be hired. Amongst them were the traditional areas that are often lamented as being lacking, such as skills in numeracy and communications, but he also stated:

  • subject knowledge
  • ability to solve real problems
  • ability speak the language of different scientific disciplines
  • knowledge of how different industries work; being a good team worker
  • ability to network outside own area of science
  • computer-based systems ability (e.g. smart data mining)
  • ability to change and adapt.

However, his view was that GSK does generally get what it needs from graduates and that UK students match up well internationally.

Regarding the next steps, the HEC are running a number of roundtable events like the one outlined above, the outcomes of which will be combined with the written evidence received and reported to David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science). We were informed that they intend to take a strategic view to Mr Willetts to present a clear picture. We’ll be following this with interest, as the issues surrounding postgraduate education in STEM have been overlooked for too long.

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