The impact of losing central provisions

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The University’s move to shift academic support to Faculties continues with postgraduate training courses. Despite recommendations from those involved with research training, University Senior Management chose to devolve the responsibility to Faculties in July, six weeks after taking the decision to close the Student Learning Development Centre (SLDC).

Courses provided centrally by the Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) will not continue after the end of Michaelmas term. Although a large part of research training, generally more subject-specific, has always been carried out by Faculties, for several years this has been supplemented by generic workshops and training days organised by Dr Louise Innes, the Research Training Manager.

Dean of Graduate Studies, Professor Geraint Johnes, said: “Because of its very generic nature, central provision has been very important. […] It’s also allowed researchers from different disciplinary areas to come into contact with each other,”

From January 2011 all research training will be in the hands of the Faculties. Each Faculty has identified a named person to take responsibility for research training co-ordination, who will work alongside the Faculty Student Learning Advisor, a position devolved from the SLDC.

In 2002, a national review by Sir Gareth Roberts found that skills possessed by graduate students were not always skills required by employers. As a result, funding was provided to all UK universities to offer training to help students develop these skills, out of which grew Lancaster’s centrally-provided courses. The funding is due to cease in 2011.

A working group was set up at the start of 2010 to consider the options in the light of funding coming to an end. It included Dr Innes, the four current Faculty Research Training Co-ordinators and a postgraduate representative, Mike Jenkins. In June, its report concluded that although there were areas where cuts could be made, some central provision should continue.

On July 19 Professor Bob McKinlay, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, gave a presentation to the University Management Advisory Group (UMAG), the University’s senior management team, concerning the future of research training. Following this, UMAG decided to move all provision to the Faculties.

None of the working group members SCAN spoke to have been given any justification for a decision that was contrary to their recommendations.  Prof McKinlay said: “Situating student learning support within the Faculties builds on the model of context-relevant support and will strengthen collaborative working between academic staff and the Student Learning Advisors.[It] focuses resources on the delivery of student learning support and offers savings in central services costs of administration and coordination.”

The end of the Roberts money has coincided with a drive at Lancaster to embed academic support further into the Faculties. There is a feeling amongst some that postgraduates are more likely to engage with training that is directly applicable to their own research.

“Support in the centre potentially becomes detached from the day to day needs of the student,” said Dr Paul Rodaway, Director of CELT. “It’s very difficult to meet the variety of needs of students within a central service. Research training that’s delivered within a context would appear to have most impact. By moving things down to the Faculty you put the decision making closer to where people have the knowledge about what kind of needs there are.”

Dr Fiona Benson, Associate Dean for Teaching for the School of Health and Medicine (SHM), agreed, saying that to some extent “the evidence was in the numbers.” In 2009-10 just 13% of training attended by SHM students was centrally provided.

The concern, however, is that with fewer opportunities for students to mix across disciplines each Faculty will become more separate.

“Are we a university or are we three [or] four separate universities?” said one staff member. “Students may not do the mixing they would before and I think that’s a great loss.”

One loss will be Thesis in Progress (TIP), a series of workshops designed to allow students to discuss non-subject specific PhD. There were three levels, relating to the different stages of the PhD. In 2009-2010, 324 students took a TIP workshop.

“It’s a chance for students to meet each other and talk about the issues that aren’t subject-specific. One of the things about the PhD is it’s such an individual process that there’s always isolation involved,” said Dr Innes.

TIP level one  will run in Michaelmas Term 2010. Levels two and three have been discontinued, and it is expected that Faculties will assess the programmes and incorporate elements of them into their own provision.

“My aim would be to try and pick up as much as we can at the faculty level to minimise what is lost but that is obviously dependent on funding,” said another member of staff. “However, with the loss of central provision comes a loss of expertise, knowledge and years of experience which will be harder for the Faculties to replace.”

Without a central organiser – Dr Innes’ contract will not be continued past January – and with Faculties potentially running very similar courses the Faculty co-ordinators will liaise with each other to avoid duplication of content. “For this year I don’t expect to see much change, which gives us effectively a planning year. We also have skills within the School that give us the potential for offering things that aren’t currently part of the menu [and are] available for other Faculties to attend,” said Dr Benson. “We really want to be sure that the top priority is looking after and ensuring success for vulnerable students.”

“For many research students there shouldn’t be a major impact, particularly if we’re successful in ensuring that elements currently provided in the centre are available within the Faculty,” added Dr Rodaway.

The true costs

Ask any member of staff who’s been involved in centrally provided research training what the effects of losing it are likely to be and the answers are always the same. Fewer opportunities to mix across Faculties. Course duplication. Decrease in completion rates. Decrease in student satisfaction.

Potentially one of the most concerning is completion rates. All full-time PhD students are expected to submit their thesis within four years regardless of how their study is funded. Research Council, however, which fund many UK PhD students, have a threshold for the percentage of funded students who, having started a PhD, must have completed four years later. If universities do not meet this percentage, they can lose the opportunity to apply for future funding.

A few years ago, Lancaster met the Economic and Social Research Council’s threshold by a dangerously slim margin. To help improve completion rates, CELT and Dr Innes created a Supported Writing course targeted specifically at finishing PhD students, a week-long workshop which allowed small groups of students to work on writing up their theses with members of CELT staff on hand at all times for support.

“A lot of people have left here, they’ve written papers, they’ve written bits of chapters, they’ve managed to hand something in to the supervisor,” explained Dr Innes. “It’s sad that that may not continue. For the students who’ve come on it it’s been life changing. you have to look at every student as someone who’s worth investing your time in and not just a tick.”

As yet it is unclear whether this course will continue in Faculties. With only three dedicated members of staff, the Faculty Student Learning Advisors, providing academic support, compared to the seven previously in the SLDC, staff worry that pressures of time will leave some students unsupported.

“I can’t see how everybody can do everything, and something’s going to give. I’m not certain that vulnerable and needy and at-risk students are going to be the ones who are prioritised. My immediate concern is that there will be students on campus in distress,” said a former member of SLDC staff. “The positive side is that those who are still here are very dedicated and very motivated and will do whatever they can to make this journey a good one for students.”

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