The voice of PGRs is barely audible in UKRI’s “new deal”

If I thought the Office for Students' work on student voice and engagement was weak, I wasn’t quite prepared for UKRI’s “New Deal” for PGRs.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As well as being pretty useless at engaging with students itself, the mistake that OfS routinely makes is to assume that its own interventions are what will protect students and improve their experience – without spotting that locally and routinely, you need to take steps to ensure that the power imbalance between David-students and Goliath-providers is tackled – such that good things happen outside of a “boots on the ground” inspection or a complaint all the way to the OIA.

It’s even more important for PGRs. The trifecta of a pretty weak set of rights to start with, institutions that are trying to squeeze every last drop and effort and value from dwindling funding, and an environment in which PGRs think any attempt to enforce the rights that are there will result in perceived reputational damage when trying to build a career means that we really do need to work out how their “voice” can engender protection and change.

As such, the “New Deal” for PGRs – summarised elsewhere on the site by my colleague James Coe – is a real let down.

On engagement with UKRI itself, it’s bad enough that there’s, as usual, no reflection on the relationship (and divvy up of responsibilities between) between OfS and UKRI on the “student” experience. There’s nothing on routinely surveying PGR students, for example – a continuing gaping hole that dwindling participation in PRES (it’s pretty much halved over a decade) can’t fill.

It also seems pretty implausible that a UK-wide body thinking about a UK-wide strategy for PGRs barely mentions the devolved nations bodies – particularly given that CTER in Wales will have new responsibilities over learner protection, ensuring that students and learners’ interests are properly and appropriately represented, and ensuring that their views are captured, heard and acted on.

The analysis of the responses to the call for input on the new deal had noted a call for an “open communication” network between UKRI and PGRs. It also noted ideas around panels and focus groups, collaboration with PGR subject associations, and the active involvement of student representatives. None of that even merited a response, it seems.

There is, to be a fair, a line that says that the “​​Cross-sector PGR Funders and Providers Forum” group will consider how best to communicate with students to ensure that PGR students have the right information about support available to them. Of course, being a funder and provider forum, there’s no student on it – the very definition of “provider capture” in regulatory theory terms.

On rights, terms and conditions, it was inevitable that UKRI would reject the idea of PGRs as staff – although there’s little in the report that engages seriously with the ideas suggested by UCU and others on creating a package of “de facto staff” rights without a formal status change to get around some of the problems highlighted by universities.

It’s also pretty astonishing, given it was raised several times in the consultation, that there’s nothing in there that addresses the recruitment, selection of and treatment of PGRs when undertaking teaching – a key career “pipeline” issue, and one characterised by unacceptably variable pay, treatment and serious precarity.

The “baseline” of support it’s thinking of establishing – over everything from supervision standards to mental health – ought to have a real relationship with quality frameworks from OfS and QAA, and government-backed work like the University Mental Health charter. That neither the Quality Code, OfS’ B Conditions nor Student Minds are mentioned doesn’t fill me with hope that PGRs will be properly considered in what is often undergraduate centred and framed work.

One of the more surreal aspects of the report is the noting of the recent High Court judgement in the case of Oxford University Innovation Ltd v Oxford Nanoimaging Ltd – which highlighted that, at least for some PGR students who are not employees, consumer protection law may apply. UKRI is right that legislation could require recruiting organisations to take steps to put things right if the PGR student can demonstrate that they “were not provided with teaching with appropriate care and skill”, although the implications go far beyond that.

That there’s nothing in here on getting guidance out for providers and students on the detailed implications (especially given the Competition and Markets Authority guidance is very much framed around undergraduates) is a weakness. We might also expect UKRI to be angling to join the “forum” that OfS hosts between itself and the CMA and the OIA on such issues – although that has been working on “new ways of making students aware of their rights and raising awareness about providers’ internal complaints processes, how students can access these and what the process entails” since 2020 with no update since.

That said, anyone that thinks that the existing consumer protection law framework for student rights is helpful, working or meaningfully used by students who feel that they’re being let down is delusional – which underlines the problem with a response that effectively says “we’ll you’re not staff, but here’s a collection of initiatives, some of which will result in changes to our own contracts” approach.

Day to day, the mess that is PGR student advocacy and representation really needs addressing. UCU seems to be significantly less interested than it was, NUS is nowhere on the issue, students’ unions’ experiments in this area are disparate and it’s hard to point at many providers where we might argue that the “voice” of PGRs is organised, supported, loud, clear and resulting in change. A genuine sector collaboration on the issue – drawing in providers, funders, regulators, the unions and actual PGR students – is long, long overdue.

One response to “The voice of PGRs is barely audible in UKRI’s “new deal”

  1. It is a shame that NUS hoodwinked the then National Postgraduate Committee, who had been making significant inroads into PGR representation in the 2000s, to dissolve and merge with NUS who promptly ‘forgot’ about PGRs as soon as the competition had been neutralised.

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