The Graduate School at Oxford Brookes University


The past ten years have seen an explosion of graduate schools in universities in the UK, paralleling a burgeoning growth of their equivalent in Europe (UK Council for Graduate Education, 1995, 2004). Traditionally, UK students in the second cycle of study in higher education have been termed ‘postgraduates’ and their needs have been met by courses run more or less within the same structures as the undergraduate (first cycle) community. This has been the case at Oxford Brookes. Meeting the needs of increasing numbers of discerning postgraduates is challenging within such structures – especially in a university with a strong focus on undergraduate study. Promoting postgraduate study also presents an increasing challenge in the competitive European and global markets and against a background of rising undergraduate debt. It is into this arena that the development of a Graduate School provides a credible route to develop postgraduate activity for the benefit of students, academic schools and the University.

The context for a graduate school at Oxford Brookes

Students studying for taught masters qualifications in the University can be found in all eight of its academic schools. In addition to this, there are approximately 450 research students also distributed across all eight schools. The new Graduate School encompasses all of these students, on all of the campuses of the University. It is virtual and its staffing is minimal; the Head of Graduate School (0.5 fte) and the University’s Research Training Coordinator (0.5fte, but who also carries the additional role of organising researcher training for the staff of the University). The Graduate School therefore has to rely on strong links with other key areas; the Graduate Office (part of the University Registry in the Directorate of Academic and Student Affairs); the Research and Business Development Office and staff with responsibility for postgraduates in each of the academic schools. Nationally, it fits a model adopted by many universities for a virtual graduate school that serves the needs of both taught and research postgraduates, grouped around the administrative structure of a Graduate Office.

To be effective, the Graduate School needs a strong committee structure influencing the development of both taught and research postgraduate activity. This structure is composed of three committees; a small Graduate School Management Group, advising the Head of the Graduate School on its development and activities; the Research Degrees Committee and its sub-committees, overseeing postgraduate research students and reporting to the Research and Knowledge Transfer Committee and to Academic Board; and the Postgraduate Advisory Group, reporting to the Learning and Teaching Committee.

The Graduate School is fortunate to inherit a strong tradition in delivering research degrees, in which the Research Degrees Committee has played a pivotal role. Its two sub-committees have worked to maintain high standards in two closely interlinked ways; by considering and commenting on all research degree proposals in the University and by providing a forum for sharing good practice amongst postgraduate research tutors that is then disseminated to colleagues in schools. The success of the Research Degrees Committee and its role in the University has been acknowledged by the recent Quality Assurance Agency’s Special Review of Research Degree Programmes, which commended the University on aspects of its provision. This model, of committees as a means of informing and developing quality and standards, is an important one that the Graduate School will seek to build on for postgraduate taught activity. Where the tradition of coordinated development in the University is less strong, School representatives in the Postgraduate Advisory Group play a pivotal role in developing good practice in their schools and then disseminating this across the University. The Postgraduate Advisory Group also has a marketing sub-committee with the role of promoting postgraduate opportunities across the University.

Raising awareness of the virtual; the presence of the Graduate School at Oxford Brookes.

It is a reasonable aspiration that Oxford Brookes will have graduate centres on each of its campuses, open to postgraduate students from across the University, providing facilities and resources appropriate to them. Until they are developed, postgraduate common room facilities on the Gipsy Lane site and a research students’ computer room encompass the physical resources of the School. It must, therefore, make its presence known through its web site and activities. In doing so, it delivers to three communities: staff, current students and potential students. Gradually, it will also develop links with alumni and sponsors as well as those providing student placement and employment opportunities.

The Graduate School web site provides a central portal for communicating with all the constituencies represented. Closely linked with Graduate Office web pages that hold the documentation for research degree courses, by September 2006 it will provide a single link for postgraduate students to access the range of training and other opportunities delivered by the School; to the support provided by the International Student Advisory Service, Upgrade, the Library and Information Service, the International Centre for English Language Support, the Careers Service and so on. Staff will also use the site to access information on training and development. This will include the Supervisor Training Course and related web training materials. The site also informs prospective students of the opportunities the University provides, not only by linking to the Prospectus but also by highlighting scholarship opportunities and allowing students an insight into postgraduate life at Brookes.

The Graduate School will therefore chiefly be recognisable by its range of activities: regular induction and training events for research students and their supervisors; the supervisors training course; social events for research students and the Postgraduate Forum, where good practice in postgraduate (taught) issues will be shared across the University. As a ‘high point’ of the year, there will also be a Graduate School annual lecture, delivered by a leader in the development of postgraduate education, to be accompanied by activities showcasing the year’s successes and developments.

The Graduate School and developing Quality and Standards

It is a basic tenet of the Graduate School that quality is essential for the successful develop
ment of postgraduate study. In an increasingly competitive market and a UK location where ‘bargain basement’ fees will never be possible, the University must constantly enhance the quality and relevance of its courses and be prepared to refine, review its courses and sometimes close them if need be. With increasing student debt, European and global opportunities for study, courses delivered through the medium of English in many more countries and students discriminating by factors including institution name and reputation, associated costs of living, course relevance and likelihood of employment, academic quality must be accompanied by support and facilities of equal quality.

What does ‘quality’ mean for taught postgraduate courses? From a student perspective, it means courses that support the learning of the entire range of backgrounds and abilities recruited. It also means going well beyond the basics – delivering courses that provide the fundamental skills and knowledge base of the subject and include current material delivered by leading experts in the field. It means organising projects that are topical and relevant and involve the use of advanced methodologies. It means courses with a minimum amount of co-teaching with undergraduates. It means designing courses for relevance to future employment and delivering high levels of generic skills training that will enhance career prospects. It also means developing a learning environment that will motivate and support students and result in the kind of positive experiences that build associations with the University that last a lifetime – experiences students will remember as among the best of their lives. From a University view point, there must also be academic rigour, efficiently and effectively run teaching and assessment and adherence to national quality standards with efficient administration of courses, with appropriate student numbers reflecting the costs and benefits of each course or group of courses. From a staff viewpoint, there should be the opportunity to teach to strengths and interests as well as delivering the basics; a fair division of workload to avoid inappropriate multi-tasking; excellent administrative support and above all, staff time reflecting commitment to students.

To be ‘one of the best’, the University must take a strategic approach to the development of its postgraduate taught programmes. The Postgraduate Advisory Group is central to this process and school representatives will feed into it by way of an annual review process linked to school strategic review. Schools will be asked to report on issues including the linking of high-quality research (or, where relevant, practice) to current and proposed courses; teaching quality; student numbers and profiles, focussing on recent trends; the employability of graduates; fee levels in relation to competitors and key issues in recruitment. While the Postgraduate Advisory Group can only make recommendations (unlike similar committees in some universities, which take responsibility for validation), it will play a novel and vital role in making recommendations on course development and cross-university issues. A further aspiration is for the development of cross-university activity building on areas of shared expertise.

What does ‘quality’ mean for research programmes? While there will always (and of necessity) be a diversity in research projects and in the nature and mode of supervision across subject areas, it is not hard to define common aspects of quality for research degrees. Projects must be academically rigorous and intellectually challenging but achievable in three years of full-time study. They must make original contributions to knowledge in the field, must include the development of research and employment skills and enhance the career prospects of the student. In addition, there must be a sense of belonging to a research community and support that means that work can be carried out efficiently and effectively, without unnecessary delays. To deliver this, supervisors need to be committed to the task and equipped to fulfil it; training is a vital part of this and the Graduate School plays a central role in delivering training to staff and students. Training is only a small part of the picture, however, and good supervision involves a high level of motivation for the work and for the student as well as a real commitment to research. Developing supervisory capacity remains one of the greatest challenges for the Graduate School and for the University in the next five years, as experienced supervisors retire. Alongside it lies creating time for supervision and ensuring that the majority of research students are in active research groups.

The Graduate School and student recruitment

Developing the Graduate School involves attracting high-quality, motivated students to our courses, whether locally, nationally or internationally. While parents are influential in governing the choice of university of undergraduates, there is no doubt that postgraduates are highly discriminating and seek out a combination of quality, cost and lifestyle that is challenging for any university to deliver. Oxford Brookes has much to offer in terms of lifestyle – it is located near major airports and associated with a city world-famous for its international character and academic prowess. It is also just an hour or so from London. However, while these qualities help, they should be viewed as a bonus, not a baseline. What will attract students locally or globally? In the end, the answer is simple: reputation. This must relate both to the University as a whole and the course and school in particular. News travels rapidly in this area; successful, satisfied students will quickly spread the word amongst family, peer groups and friends that this is a university and a course to consider. Disappointed students communicate equally quickly. So the first marketing tool must be the quality and relevance of our courses and the quality and appropriateness of accommodation, facilities and the general ambience of the university as seen through postgraduate eyes. After this, comes the need to communicate the nature and quality of our courses effectively amongst our own students, in the UK, Europe and globally. Increasingly this involves web marketing and attendance at Postgraduate Fairs and other events; developments in Europe will require further efforts.

The Graduate School and Europe

Graduate education in the UK must be viewed as part of a European network. The standardisations produced by the Bologna process (Europa, no date) accompany a European emphasis on mobility as part of training. At the postgraduate level, there are key ‘European’ issues still to be resolved. While there is a widespread acceptance of three ‘cycles’ of study in higher education – undergraduate, masters, doctoral ­– the UK system has a one-year ‘second cycle’ when much (but not all) of Europe is standardising on a ‘3 + 2 + 3’ system. Adoption of the ECTS credit rating system (ECTS; European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System; No date) for postgraduate courses (from September 2006) will be followed by introduction of the Diploma Supplement (aimed for 2007) and will facilitate mobility between Brookes students and their counterparts in other European countries. The first ‘European Master’ qualification in Brookes – in Publishing, validated for 2006 entry – also marks a significant development, interestingly a two-year second cycle course. The prospects f
or development are great but also challenging in a variety of ways. Winning European funding requires the ability to respond rapidly to complex bidding procedures. The University is in an excellent position to build on and develop European partnerships and this is a key area for postgraduate development. Developments like the Erasmus Mundus programme (Erasmus Mundus, no date), for instance, will have a significant impact. By promoting the development of high-quality courses with a trans-national content, offering students an opportunity to study in at least two countries and with scholarships to allow ‘third country’ (non-EU) students and academic staff to benefit from the programme, participating universities will gain considerable profile and credibility in Europe and internationally. With 100 courses to be supported, more than 5,000 international student bursaries available and 4,000 EU students to travel to ‘third’ countries, the scheme is substantial in scope (Erasmus Mundus News, 2006).

Graduate School and research

The relationship between the Graduate School and research must of necessity be close. In the main, contributors to postgraduate taught programmes will include a significant proportion recognised for their research. For the most part, provision of an appropriate range of projects will require research active staff and research facilities. Clearly, research degrees cannot be provided unless skilled, active researchers are available as supervisors and HEFCE policy increasingly suggests that no place to study for a research degree should be provided if the student cannot be placed in a research group. Conversely, the development of the Graduate School will contribute to the research of the University – not just through the research output of research students but also by playing a fundamental role in developing its research culture. The presence of postgraduate students, the increasing development of year-round academic activity on campus, the widening of links with other research active institutions will all have direct research benefits.

A ten-year vision

What will postgraduate study in Brookes look like in 2016? If the aims of the Graduate School are fulfilled, it will represent a greater proportion of the university’s activity than at present, with a greater mix of students, especially from more European countries and with courses much better integrated into the post-Bologna European framework. It will have a more noticeably postgraduate-focused community based around postgraduate centres for study, with high-quality dedicated residential accommodation available nearby. Support for students, be it academic, English language or social and pastoral will be exemplary and available to all who need it, not rationed because of excessive demand. Above all, courses will be of a high quality, relevant to the needs of postgraduate students, frequently modular for flexibility and drawing on high-level expertise, underpinned by – and underpinning – the research excellence of the University. At the heart of this will be a vibrant Graduate School, working with the Academic Schools as a powerful voice for postgraduate development and as a central ‘hub’ for postgraduate activity in all its forms. What will the major challenges be? Developing facilities, accommodation and other resources to keep pace with student aspirations; designing, validating and delivering courses that recruit and match student needs and aspirations; administration from first enquiry to graduation and alumnus contact that is efficient and student-centred; addressing European issues effectively; and attracting and retaining the kind of staff who can deliver effectively both taught masters programmes and research degrees in an increasingly challenging academic environment.

Aims and objectives of the Graduate School

Objectives for the Graduate School

To facilitate and promote the development of high-quality postgraduate study in Oxford Brookes University and encourage the University to:

  1. Maintain and develop a portfolio of postgraduate taught courses that are locally, nationally and in some cases internationally recognised for academic rigour, quality, relevance and usefulness
  2. Maintain and develop postgraduate research by assuring academic rigour, by training and supporting supervisors and students and by the identification and support of new areas for postgraduate research
  3. Gain local, national and international recognition for its high quality of provision for postgraduate students
  4. Promote and advertise postgraduate provision both internally and externally and to ensure that it is recognised as a major component of its activities
  5. Identify sources of funding for the support of postgraduate students

To achieve these the Graduate School will:

  1. Work with Schools via the Postgraduate Action Group to review existing courses on a two-year cycle and in the development and validation of new courses. Investigate and promote cross-school development. Disseminate good practice in course design and development
  2. Support the Research Degrees Committee and its sub-committees to maintain quality standards in admission, registration and progress monitoring of students. Support the Research Training Coordinator in providing training for supervisors, students and others involved in PGR support. Respond to requests from schools for the development of new postgraduate research areas wherever possible to assist them and to ensure quality and standards are maintained
  3. Liaise with the relevant directorates and service providers of the university to ensure that the resources and facilities of the University are appropriate and sufficient for all its postgraduate students. This includes advice to applicants, admissions procedures, financial advice and support, accommodation, teaching rooms, computing and library provision, common rooms and catering, sport and leisure facilities, international student support and contact after leaving the University.
  4. Develop and maintain a postgraduate web site advertising courses and research advertising for postgraduate activity in the University.
  5. Promote the Graduate School by activities (lectures and other events) within the University designed to support staff and students and indicate the quality standards to which the school aspires.
  6. Investigate sources of funding for scholarships and bursaries for postgraduate students with the Alumnus Office, Schools and the Directorate of Corporate Affairs.

Author Details

David Evans entered higher education as a Research Fellow in Botany and spent ten years as a Royal Society Research Fellow until combining roles as Reader in Plant Science, Postgraduate Research Tutor (in Biological and Molecular Sciences) and University Research Training Coordinator at Oxford
Brookes University. He became Head of the University’s Graduate School on 1 January 2006.

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