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Universities continue to fail the non-traditional part-time mature PhD student

  • 4 September 2023
  • By Peter Block

Right now, with the start of another academic year only a few weeks away, a new cohort of students are preparing to embark on their intellectually most significant academic journey. The award of a PhD as the result of several years as a doctoral student is seen as the pinnacle of academic competence. For many this is the ultimate rite of passage to an academic career and acclamation by their peers. Yet, of all programmes of study at a UK university, these students are not aware of their chances of completing that journey in their chosen university or department. It is a step into the unknown; a commitment to at least three years of study for a full-time student and anything from five to eight years or more, for those studying part-time. They are making this decision in relative ignorance of the possible outcome. This is in stark contrast to the information and data tables available for the well-oiled undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes.  

It has been over two years since HEPI published two significant reports regarding the numbers and experiences of PhD students in the UK.  Much has changed, yet much has remained the same. There remains an insufficiency of data as provided by the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) annual review. Without these data no independent analysis of trends and issues can be effectively conducted. Nor can any intersectionality of other characteristics such as mode of study compared to age and gender be evaluated.    

There are two vital pieces of information that should be published to inform all parties, particularly the part-time student. The first concerns the PRES. The annual report should provide an analysis of mode of study, differentiating the part-time student from their full-time peers. There is no reference to the part-time student within the main body of the 2021/22 report, yet they represent over 24 per cent of the in-year student body. Significantly, more than 83 per cent of part-time PhD students are mature students over 30 years old and of that group there are 10 per cent more women than men. HESA data reports that only 32 per cent of full-time PhD students are over 30 years old. As the HEPI report from Bethan Cornell in 2020 posits, it is not unreasonable to assume that this group of mature students will have quite different concerns and issues compared to many traditional full-time and predominately younger postgraduate students.  The PRES should summarize the responses of part-time mature students and evaluate their concerns. My research of available reports indicates a significant difference between the full-time and part-time student experience and their level of satisfaction, substantiating from earlier albeit limited research, which describe these individuals as invisible students.   

Much has indeed changed. The second report published by HEPI in July 2020 provided by Ginevra House provided a summary of the numbers and trends in doctoral education up to 2017/18 based on HESA data. This showed an overall growth of about 24 per cent in student numbers from 2008/9. Since 2017/18 the overall number of students and the new first-year joiners has remained largely static. Annual doctoral researcher numbers have remained at circa 100,000 according to the last published HESA dataset covering 2017/18 to 2021/22. The number of new joiners to doctoral research have also remained static, at around 25,000/year, of which over 4,700 (24 per cent) are part-time.

The second piece of missing data in the public domain is doctoral completion rates. This should be presented by HESA by mode of study – full-time and part-time, as part of the annual report. This would provide a benchmark key performance indicator for all current and potential doctoral students to consider and provide an indication to the success of their university’s doctoral graduate school.

It is possible to interrogate the Student outcomes data dashboard on the Office for Students (OfS) website. It is not a straightforward task and not all universities are represented on the dashboard. The current dashboard shows that over the period (2014/15 – 2017/18) 91.4 per cent of full-time postgraduates (research) completed their programme of study. By contrast over the period (2012/13 – 2015/16) only 72.7 per cent part-time students successfully completed their research programme. A difference of almost 20 per cent and a failure rate close to 30 percent. We need to account for this disparity.

There is no compiled data on those that fail to complete their PhD programme. None of the respondents to this research report that they had any form of exit interview. This suggests little is known about non-completion across the sector, particularly of the part-time researcher. We have to rely on small scale studies for evidence.   

Studying for a PhD can be a lonely journey. For the part-time mature student this comes with additional pressures as they try to balance a career and personal life with the demands of a doctoral research programme. Their younger colleagues may have transitioned from their undergraduate degree to a full-time master’s or doctoral research programme whilst in their early twenties, with few work or other external commitments. As a report by the University of Aberdeen noted:

Completion rates also provide an indicator of the quality of the student experience, the quality of supervision, the effectiveness of our monitoring processes and the training and support we make available through the PhD journey.

To date, much of the discourse concerns the behaviour of the PhD student, not the institution. There are a number of books on how to get a PhD. In the main they focus on personal strategies, how to navigate the challenges and fit into the system. In the academic literature on the matter, little is discussed regarding the action and positive steps required of the universities. The HEPI report from Bethan Cornell applauds the Westminster PhD community. This is a mutual support group, there are others. But it is evident from student exchanges that take place within the associated WhatsApp group, that the students have to fill the gaps that the doctoral school fails to provide. It should not have to be like that.

The changing nature of postgraduate education, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 – 2022 has left the part-time doctoral student even more disenfranchised and marginalised than they were before this period of enforced isolation. This research calls for more publicly available data on all part-time doctoral students as a first step to understand the specific needs of this community. The main thrust of the research is to argue that universities need to do much more to support the mature non-traditional doctoral student, who are predominately part-time. Universities need to take note that of this part-time group, the majority of which by 10 per cent are women. They do not ‘fit-in’ to the university system. There is a systemic lack of understanding and support by universities. In addition, due to the lack of understanding of this group’s needs there is no-one to champion their cause. Without change these part-time doctoral students will remain a marginalised group.

Doctoral schools and supervisors need to make better adjustments to meet the needs of the non-traditional doctoral student so that do not have to just ‘fit-in’. The institutions need to enable the mature part-time doctoral student, particularly those in the post 30-year-old community, to have a more fulfilling research experience. Without a doubt this will improve the completion rates.

A preprint summary report of this research is available on ResearchGate.

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