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Researchers of tomorrow

Chris Skidmore argues postgraduate research policy needs attention and recalls why he abandoned postgraduate study

Looking back on the 2020 we’ve had, it was perhaps a blessing that I was removed from office in early February, although it wasn’t the Valentine’s gift I had hoped for. Still, as readers know, the world of higher education and research is a difficult one to leave behind and I’ve since become co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, become further involved with the work of the UPP Foundation, and am looking forward to beginning work on the Higher Education Commission’s latest inquiry into levelling up university research funding in the New Year.   

Through all of these roles, I’ve become even more convinced that universities and research must play a key role in the inevitable economic reconstruction that is going to be needed in the ‘post-Covid’ era—key because these institutions are here, ready to help. 

The early lessons of the pandemic were that if the government worked with, and not against, institutions, things happened faster: PPE equipment was manufactured, testing facilities rapidly expanded, and ultimately a vaccine was discovered. Call it a moonshot, a mission, or anything else—this was launched and accomplished thanks to scientists and researchers, whose decades-long efforts to extend global collaborations meant that when the crisis came, they were on hand to deliver.  

So, if 2020 proved beyond measure the value of the wider contribution that research and universities can make to society, will we heed those lessons in 2021?   

Future higher education policy 

We’ve seen plenty of announcements this year on what the future of higher education might look like, ranging from post-qualification admissions to the flexible learning fund and modular course reforms filleted from the Augar Review—enough to keep the sector busy with policy development in 2021. And that’s not to mention the £22 billion promised uplift for R&D by 2025, for which the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered a hefty rise in the budget of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), comprising year-on-year uplifts both for UKRI and the academies.   

One announcement that jarred with this narrative of investing in future skills and reskilling, and committing to R&D, was the statement from UKRI that postgraduate researchers might have to compromise their research and finish their work within the funded period regardless of the impact of the pandemic. It barely received any media coverage—aside from in Research Professional, of course—despite the fact that committing to invest in postgraduate study is absolutely essential if we wish not only to be a global science superpower, but to even attempt to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP invested in research, as I set out recently in my lecture to the Operational Research Society

Put simply, we need an additional 200,000 people studying at postgraduate level if we have a chance of becoming an R&D nation akin to Germany, South Korea or the USA. Yet in Whitehall, postgraduate study is the ultimate Cinderella subject. Lodged between the Department for Education and BEIS, it suffers from a lack of coherent narrative about how to build a pipeline of excellence from our young people, and how to ensure a young person in Kingston upon Hull will have the same chance to progress along that pipeline as someone from Kingston upon Thames.  

Salaries over study 

As to the value of a PhD and a career as a researcher, we champion its international appeal and encourage visa applications to improve access to global talent, rightly seeking to bring researchers to this country to establish themselves in our brilliant universities. Yet when it comes to domestic students, we create algorithms called LEO that deliver the harsh message that UK students should not think about any subject that might have a long-term and uncertain outcome—that risk factor we praise start-ups for encouraging—so why not chase a salary instead? It’s a message that makes postgraduate study a no-no.  

If we want to become a global science superpower, we need to value research—all of it. Take the next phase of the war on Covid-19, which will depend entirely on the battle to get the population vaccinated. This is a human problem, solved by applying the humanities and social sciences.   

That’s not to deny the need for reform. The UKRI announcement was a case study of how inflexible and unable to adapt to the changing needs of researchers and their circumstances the current postgraduate system is. At a time when we are seeking to make learning more flexible, we need to grasp how best to allow the thousands of postgraduate students we need for the future to be able to achieve their qualifications.  

I should declare an interest. Nearly 20 years ago I embarked upon a DPhil in history—my chosen thesis being the ‘new nobility’ of the mid-Tudor period. After a one-year master’s course in historical research, during which I learned much-needed palaeographical skills and how to sort of find my way around an archive—lessons that I use to this day—I decided that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to become a full-time academic. I chose a popular history route instead, followed by politics, but the years I spent on a DPhil thesis that never materialised still benefit me now. At the back of my head, however, is still the gnawing thought of ‘could I have done it better, if differently?’   

Qualification reform 

What would different look like? In an increasingly fast-paced economy and society, the idea of taking three to four years out of your life to research and write an 80,000-word thesis that 10 people might read seems a waste of a huge amount of potential and productivity. The Viva, too, belongs to an age that we might politely admit has passed. 

Much has already been done to expand the potential crossover between academia and industry, but the greatest barrier of qualification reform for postgraduate study remains. The question is, who in Whitehall understands this? It is an essential prerequisite for an R&D strategy that the level 8 qualification route is expanded and opened up (along with level 7 master’s, which is seeing a dramatic increase in demand thanks to the DfE’s master’s loans). Yet who will lead and shape this much-needed reform?  

If anything, 2020 and the pandemic have taught us the need for wider strategic planning—not merely across a spending review cycle, but across a decade, if not two. This means going back to first principles—about where the UK needs to be by 2030 and about where, working backwards, we need to invest in education and training now. The world of higher education and research may be a difficult one to leave behind, but we cannot afford to allow its importance to slip between the departmental cracks of Whitehall.   

Chris Skidmore was twice minister for universities, science, research and innovation between 2018 and 2020, and is now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group.