Comments of MeCCSA on the AHRB Review of Postgraduate Awards

May 2001

Introductory Remarks


  1. The Association

    1. MeCCSA is the subject association for the fields
      covered in its title in UK higher education. It was
      formed in 1999 following the fusion of two predecessor
      bodies, the Standing Conference on Cultural, Communication
      and Media Studies, and the Association for Media, Communication
      and Cultural Studies. The fused body represents both
      individuals and departments in Higher Education, and
      supports and fosters the development of its field.

  2. The Subject Area


    1. The composite and diverse areas covered by this body
      range across the humanities and social sciences,
      and embrace both technical and vocational training
      as well as academic fields of study. The balance
      between these, in teaching, varies from programme
      to programme, and the variety of styles and substance
      of research inevitably leads scholars and graduates
      in the field to encounters with more than one funding
      body, an issue to which we return below.


    2. Data from AGCAS suggest that fewer students in this
      area go on to further study after undergraduate degrees
      than in many other areas. This reflects two features
      of the academic field. First, students in these disciplines
      are readily able to find employment. Despite much
      press mythology to the contrary, students in cultural,
      communication and media studies have better employment
      records after graduation than graduates from most
      other humanities and social science disciplines,
      and indeed, than many science and engineering disciplines.
      Secondly, the field into which many of them move,
      including the imprecisely labelled cultural or communication
      or information industries, have been and are likely
      to continue to be fertile fields of employment for
      graduates. They provide salaries and opportunities
      which academic employment can rarely match. Thus
      the temptations of postgraduate training and academic
      employment are relatively limited. The expansion
      at undergraduate level (especially in recent years,
      though not nearly as massive or rapid as sometimes
      suggested) is thus not reflected in comparable expansion
      at postgraduate level, though this is a vibrant sector
      comprising both academic and vocational courses (and
      including the recent development of postgraduate
      training in journalism).


  3. Funding for Postgraduate Study


    1. Students wishing to undertake postgraduate training
      in our area have faced a particular difficulty in
      obtaining financial support. There is no tradition
      in the UK, unlike the USA for example, of industrial
      support for postgraduate work in communications.
      The ESRC has provided support for students on taught
      masters courses, but the most recent data show that
      relevant MA courses at only 20 institutions received
      recognition between 1996 and 1999. Studentships in
      our field, as well as courses, are recognised and
      supported by the Council’s Sociology Subject Area
      Panel. In 1999 this panel awarded 64 places on taught
      course and 49 studentships for research degrees.
      These figures include awards to all fields within
      sociology as well as the areas in which we are directly
      interested. While it has not been possible to disaggregate
      these figures it is obvious that the field receives
      little or no support within this already overcrowded
      subject area. ESRC support for taught courses is
      about to cease with the introduction of the Council’s
      new arrangements for postgraduate training.


    2. The Arts and Humanities Research Board statistics
      on its provision of Postgraduate Programme Awards
      roughly indicate the provision of applications and
      awards by Board panel. In 1999-2000 these charts
      would seem to indicate that of 454 awards made in
      Competition A (taught masters’ courses) , roughly
      40 per cent were in Visual Arts and Media, while
      in Competition B (research doctorates) about one
      third of the 573 awards were in either visual arts
      and media or the history of visual arts and media
      (the large majority in the latter category). It is
      impossible to disaggregate these figures or to give
      them more precisely and we hope to obtain such unpublished
      data from the Board. However, the more salient point
      is the integration of our fields with the very large
      areas of art and design in such data. Informal indications
      from the Board suggest very few of such awards are
      in our subject areas.

Responses To Specific Questions In The Review


  1. Mission and Objectives

    Our concern here is with the definition of its field
    and remit employed by the AHRB. In a joint statement
    issued with the ESRC the Board rightly recognises the
    impossibility of drawing clear boundaries between the
    social sciences and humanities, and identifies several
    areas where the boundaries are inevitably blurred. We
    welcome the sensible view of both bodies that it is undesirable
    to draw tight boundaries between their respective remits.
    However we continue to fear that the intention of ensuring
    that "no application falls into a gap between the
    two bodies" may be failing both research applicants
    and students.

    The published commentary on the boundary in our area
    of work merely says that "which of the two bodies
    is the more appropriate depends on…the research
    questions…the wider context…and the methodologies
    to be adopted", without any guidance as to how those
    criteria are to be applied. This is of little or no help
    to intending applicants. While we do not wish to see
    inappropriately precise demarcation, we feel intending
    students need more guidance than this on how their research
    ideas might best be constructed and to which body they
    might be best advised to turn for support. We would welcome
    an opportunity to pursue this further with the board,
    as with the ESRC.


  2. Balanced Portfolio

    We have two concerns under this heading:


    1. Although the breadth of research interests covered
      by our fields, especially within cultural studies,
      means that many students may well get support from
      several of the AHRB panels, we nonetheless feel that
      it would be of benefit to have a specific panel with
      a remit for the fields we cover, not least because
      of the danger that they may be subsumed within the
      remit of the Visual Arts and Media panel, which has
      also to cater for the very large body of work in
      art and design.


    2. Much important work within our fields is theoretical
      or conceptual. We support the view expressed by several
      bodies recently in addressing the ESRC that the Council’s
      reconstruction of its guidelines for postgraduate
      training, in placing a welcome emphasis on the need
      for rigorous training in methodology, may incidentally
      limit the resources available for theoretical and
      conceptual work. The same concern may need to be
      addressed by the AHRB. We would caution against any
      possibility that innovative postgraduate research
      of a more theoretical character would find it difficult
      to gain support, particularly if balance is unduly
      shifted towards support with "a direct professional
      or vocational outcome". We regard the role of
      the AHRB, as it is of the other research councils,
      to provide support for innovative blue skies research
      with no immediate or obvious application, in the
      interest of enriching the disciplines and laying
      the foundations for unpredictable innovations in
      applied areas in the future.


  3. Allocating Awards

    We do not support the notion of quotas for institutions
    or departments for research awards, which should be driven
    by assessment of quality and merit.


  4. Research Training and Supervision

    This is a complex area requiring full consideration.
    The Postgraduate Training Guidelines recently produced
    by the ESRC have been the focus of much controversy,
    on the basis of what many perceive to be their unduly
    prescriptive nature and their excessively quantitative
    understanding of research methods. The QAA has, in its
    turn, produced guidelines in the form of a Code of Practice
    for the standard and content of research supervision.
    These are matters that should largely be the province
    of individual HEI’s, though minimum standards of provision
    and support should be required, and applicants should
    have full information of what they might expect when
    registered in different departments with differing styles,
    cultures, or pedagogic methods.

    The range of subjects covered by the AHRB does not easily
    allow for general statements about ‘training requirements,
    but we do not believe those for arts and humanities students
    to be in general distinct from those in other subject
    areas.


  5. Funding

    We do not have a subject specific view on this matter.

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