Suggestions to the BBSRC

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007. 8:05pm

Dear Prof. Mary Bownes,

As someone who received a BBSRC funded CASE PhD studentship in 2001 but has not obtained a PhD I would like to offer some suggestions based on my experience. I feel that the BBSRC could have got better value for money for the money spent in relation to my studentship. I also feel that the current arrangements have the potential to deter and delay individuals attempting to establish an academic scientific career via a PhD.

I considered attending the public meeting to be held in Glasgow in January 2007, where you are on the panel, however the late notice and location have made this impractical for me. I submitted questions to the London public meeting two years ago, and despite the fact that these were not in my view responded to satisfactorily I would have submitted questions online again had the facility been made available. (The London panel were not prepared to justify the BBSRC paying Cambridge College fees, and suggested they were a matter for heads of departments in Cambridge, despite the money in the case of industrial CASE studentships being paid directly by the BBSRC, and generally still being BBSRC funded despite the HoD middlemen.) As I am not attending the public meeting, I have decided to write this email to make some of the points which I would have liked to raise with you in that forum. Perhaps you will be able to introduce and answer some of them in the question and answer sessions?

I feel that by not routinely following up on the success of PhD studentships with the recipients of studentships the BBSRC is missing out on a potentially useful source of feedback. If the BBSRC wrote to both the student and supervisor on an annual basis to check on progress a more balanced view might be received by the BBSRC and earlier warning of departments / particular Cambridge Colleges / and supervisors who are failing could be obtained.

Were holders of studentships, or their representatives, invited to the open meeting?

How can the general public really effectively be expected to question the BBRSC’s current policies and strategies with little more than four weeks notice – over a holiday period – of the opportunity?

Suggestions for the BBSRC:

*To process studentship applications in a timely manner. My application for the position was accepted by my supervisor / department in May before an October start. Due to the BBSRC’s delays I did not receive confirmation of my position until a few days before the start date of the studentship, following many weeks of uncertainty. The excuse given for the delay by the BBSRC to my supervisor was apparently the failure of the head of department to date his signature on the paperwork – the BBSRC took many months to find this omission which I, my supervisor and others in the department considered to be most probably a fabricated excuse for an unreasonable delay.

*To require the industry derived component of a CASE student stipend be underwritten, by the department / institution or BBSRC. Industrial partners on research council funded projects not paying, or ceasing to pay, their contribution appears to be a recurring problem. For a PhD student the loss of a couple of thousand pounds a year of money they were expecting can be quite significant. It is also awful for moral. When it happened to me I felt exploited and conned. I am aware this is also a problem for research council funded post-docs, and while they have the protection of employment law, the institution’s first move can be to ask them to personally take the loss. Also the value of the stipend should be stated, preferably any advertisement, or at least when the position is offered – despite enquiring I did not discover the value of my industrial contribution until I received my first payment.

*Students could be provided with the details given in the application to the BBSRC detailing what is proposed in terms of business related training for an industrial CASE studentship. An Industrial CASE studentship, according to the BBSRC’s website is supposed to incorporate: “wider business-related training for the student in eg. project-management training, business strategy training”. Nothing of this sort was made available to me through my industrial CASE studentship. Had I known what, if anything, had been promised in the studentship application to the BBSRC I would have been in a stronger position to pursue it.

*Not to spend public money on Cambridge College Fees. If Cambridge college fees are to be paid from money distributed via the BBSRC the BBSRC should consider if such spending can still be justified in light of the “College provision” document published in 2006 and currently apparently undergoing a process of adoption by colleges: The colleges themselves have tried to justify their interference with those working towards a PhD in Cambridge, I believe the document they have come up with shows them to be utterly out of touch with graduate students. Research supervisors and research students were not consulted in the preparation of the document, it was created entirely by college tutors. Effective student representation was prevented by the university which banned the distribution for comment of draft documents. I also have a worry that the requirement to maintain college membership at Cambridge in order to obtain a PhD can result in the qualification being effectively denied or made much easier to obtain for totally non-academic reasons (the college has no academic role). My supervisor and fellow students have said that I should not have gone to Cambridge if I was uncomfortable with attitudes that I apparently should have expected to find there such as tolerance of nepotism, corruption, privilege, and incompetence. I do not believe this is an acceptable position to put those who receive BBSRC studentships in. If Cambridge is accepted as an elitist institution [with respect to acceptance of such malpractice] it should not receive public money until it changes inline with the rest of the modern society providing that funding.

*Not to support Cambridge Colleges which allow individual unsupervised fellows to exercise unlimited, unsupervised summary punishments, even when the student does not believe they are guilty of an offence against the college rules. ie. those colleges allowing one individual acting alone to deny a student a PhD for no good reason should not be eligible to receive college fees funded by the research councils. If the funding of college fees were to continue, it would be preferable if the BBSRC selectively funded the better colleges.

I believe a future college provision document should ensure the following, and that those wishing to pursue PhDs funded by public money should not be expected to become members of Cambridge colleges until they are in place.

  • The disciplinary powers of fellows to issue summary punishments ought to be capped / limited.
  • There should be a time limit on college disciplinary action, it should not be allowed to drag on indefinitely.
  • Students should be notified of disciplinary action in writing / email, and given regular updates.
  • There should be oversight of individual fellows currently acting alone on disciplinary matters.
  • Students being disciplined should be able to have a representative (eg. Student’s Union, Departmental Supervisor etc.) present, and that this invitation should automatically be extended at all appropriate times.
  • Students should be given the opportunity to defend allegations made against them.
  • Perhaps there needs to be something between a summary punishment issued by a fellow and the procedure for expulsion from the college.
  • Current rules/guidance/policies should be easily available to all students.

Update – these suggestions have also been sent to the Master of Magdalene College who replied: “I will circulate your list of suggestions to the College Officers to ensure that they are not overlooked”

An alternative route with potentially broader impact than direct action by the BBSRC might be for the Office of the adjudicator in higher education to require its member institutions to have a minimum standard of internal discipline and complaints procedures. Currently the OIAHE only deals with a tiny fraction of complaints, essentially appeals over decisions made by institutions. The OIAHE could have an effect on a much broader number of students if they set some minimum standards for the way member institutions deal with complaints – for example setting a maximum time for the complaints to be considered in, and highlighting institutions which have good practices. At the moment to get to the point of an OIAHE review will take a student an immense amount of time and effort as many levels of an institutions own complaints system is exhausted, many students will not have the time / inclination / resources to pursue a complaint over such a period and through so many levels.

The OIAHE procedures also require extensive co-operation from the institution, the OIAHE requires the complaining student to supply the OIAHE to acquire a letter from their institution confirming completion of internal procedures, and that the student supply a copy of the institution’s relevant rules and regulations.

Supporting the expansion of the OIAHE’s remit would perhaps be the best way for the research councils to ensure that those in receipt of studentships are treated fairly.

I understand that Cambridge is an institution that is highly resistant to change, that is why I have given various options above which build on recent accepted developments.

*Biological safety I found myself in a department without a functioning biological safety management system over three years, and no biological safety committee for more than two years. This resulted in many researchers and post-docs having a difficult dilemma: do they continue working against the law and the departmental / university rules. A lot of time was wasted by many researchers complying with ill thought out absurdities introduced by a Biological Safety Officer who was generally regarded as useless. The BBSRC should check that those institutions it is funding have suitable procedures for biological safety management in place; had the BBSRC been receiving feedback from those it funded the problem in my department may have been solved faster. The BBSRC currently reviews “the overall research environment and current facilities which are available” when considering studentship applications. The verification of adequate (legally compliant and internally consistent) biological safety management could be made an explicit part of that.

*Paying those working towards a PhD a salary, and employing them would I think help recruitment, retention, completion, moral etc. immensely for a huge range of reasons for example: -Accommodation – Employment may make mortgages more accessible, professional status would broaden the spectrum of available rental accommodation. -As employees those working towards PhDs might be more easily accepted as equal members of the research team in department. -Employment rights – simply to get paid the amount advertised / offered, right to a reference would be of great value. It would not cost the state any more, as the taxation money (income tax and council tax) would be going round in circles. If student status were maintained I believe encouraging PhD students to become paid employees in positions such as lab managers and technicians towards the end of their PhDs should be encouraged.

*Introduce a requirement for the institution or student to notify the BBSRC if disciplinary action or bans from laboratories are being considered or are threatened. I believe some academics do not realise that for many PhD students their income, accommodation and opportunity to obtain a qualification are at risk when they initiate such actions – having to inform a funding body such as the BBSRC may make them consider their actions more thoroughly, they may even chose to deal with the underlying problems rather than remove or otherwise intimidate and quash those bringing them to their attention.

*BBSRC should support unions for those it funds enabling them to be represented when their institutions are making decisions which affect them. Perhaps the BBSRC could require a union of some description to be recognised and supported by those institutions at which it supports studentships. Perhaps the BBSRC’s role could be one of using its position to help enforce the Education Act in this area, with respect to PhD students.

*The nine-term minimum time served is another Cambridge anomaly which could usefully be removed. As with my other suggestions I believe this would improve moral and completion rates.

*Within four years there should be a guarantee of an examination of a thesis if one is submitted. Currently at Cambridge applications for extensions for a specific period have to be applied for after ten terms (three years and one term). Once a deadline is passed a grey area is entered from which there is no clear path out. In circumstances such as illness or disciplinary action where either the individual involved is innocent or the offence has no bearing on academic competence. I believe this is now urgently in need of review especially as the Studentships and Fellowships Panel now (according to a response in the 2005 open meeting) funds some studentships over 4 years. “It should not be assumed that an application to defer will be approved as a matter of routine” l I think this should be pursued in parallel with attempts to provide holders of studentships every opportunity to complete a PhD as rapidly as practical.

*The ability for Cambridge colleges to veto the award of a PhD should not be tolerated by the BBSRC. Why should they be put in a position to devalue a public investment and derail a scientists’ career?

*To consider if the residency requirement in Cambridge is compatible with industrial CASE PhDs. Necessary exemptions / permissions should be obtained prior to advertising a studentship. I was put in the position of having to break my college’s rules, and my supervisor’s advice was to try and hide the fact I was working away from Cambridge from my college to avoid any repercussions from breaking the rules; acquiring the proper permission appearing to be a mammoth and time consuming task which would have introduced delays which neither me or my supervisor wished to experience. The BBSRC could require an assurance that any required exemptions / permissions have been obtained before a studentship was allowed to commence or insist that the University and its Colleges modernised their rules on working away from the University.

*Make the path to independent research funding shorter, clearer. For those looking further ahead the BBSRC’s policies requiring an ever increasing number of years postdoctoral experience before even allowing applications for independent research funding are I believe a deterrent to those considering an academic research career.

* Review the need for the BBSRC to check eligibility for an award ie. to verify an potential studentship recipient has the required qualifications, where the host institution has already completed this verification.

The initial requirement to present a degree certificate could be removed, making it clear from the outset that a stamped/sealed letter would suffice where degree certificates are unavailable. The paper based certificate or stamped/sealed letter requirement suggests that there is a BBSRC bureaucrat simply wanting a piece of paper to put in their file. A system where the BBSRC contacted the university registry directly would surely be more reliable, harder to defraud and would shift the responsibility to provide proof of eligibility away from the relatively powerless potential student to the BBSRC and the relevant University.

In terms of improving accessibility I would like to note that the requirement for a 2:1 degree can unreasonably discriminate against those who obtain 2:2 and below degrees from the top universities – even though their skills, knowledge and commitment to their subjects may be equal to or greater than those of individuals attending other institutions. As degree classifications are not standardised across universities in the UK, to require a particular classification of degree for access to a research council studentship regardless of the course/institution appears irrational. When I joined my undergraduate course final assessment was conducted after students were asked if they were holding conditional offers for PhD places – this information was available to those conducting the assessments. As the number of students going on to postgraduate study was a statistic my undergraduate course department was particularly keen on keeping high the potential for abuse of this information – ie. to award 2:1 degrees to those with PhD offers rather than those without was clear to many of us on the course and something we fought to remove.

*The complexity of the application process for a studentship / PhD position could be reduced. A useful comparison might be application processes for typical graduate jobs, no companies require references in double envelopes with signatures over the seals as Cambridge University does – being able to find referees capable and prepared to follow such arcane instructions is a challenge, one which might well be reducing accessibility.

I think following up on these suggestions could help the BBSRC in its aim to ensure the UK has the bioscientists it needs/desires.

I am aware PhD studentships represent a relatively small amount of money, and a small amount of waste (During my studentship I watched millions being wasted on an infrastructure project in my department (due to the same underling problems)) Much more important is the loss or delay of the scientific careers of those individuals involved.

All the points I have noted above I attempted to resolve at the time they emerged using all routes available to me. I feel that I have had some success in making things better for those who follow me, however trying to change an institution like Cambridge University from the position of a Graduate student is a very difficult and almost futile endeavour – the BBSRC is much better placed, as a holder of the purse strings, to lobby for the necessary change. While I understand the BBSRC generally and quite rightly does not interfere in the detail of the way Universities and other institutions that it funds are run I believe that these are areas where the BBSRC could usefully extend their criteria for assessment of PhD studentship applications from institutions.

Finally is there really no BBSRC funded academic capable of chairing a public meeting, hiring celebrities in my view gives a negative impression of excessive profligacy? I submitted this question to the London meeting, (Having written to Nick Ross to ask if he was being paid) but it was not asked. I realise I do not know if Sue MacGregor is giving her time for free.

I feel that I exceeded the responsibilities deriving from my studentship, college and university membership a number of years ago.

Please do not feel obliged to reply personally – I will be reading any report of the open meeting published on the BBSRC website.

Many thanks,

Richard Taylor.

I did receive a reply:

Dear Richard

Thank you for taking the time to comment extensively on bbsrc studentship funding and your own experiences as a student. We will extract from your letter some of the perceptive points that you have made to address at the Open Meeting in Glasgow.

Some of your remarks relate specifically to Cambridge and the College system. The bbrsc does not normally intervene in individual student situations, but we do expect each HEI to have in place appropriate appeal and complaint procedures to deal with individuals using fair, transparant[sic] and well doucumented[sic] methods.

Please be assured that we will take the information you have given to us seriously.

Kind Regards Mary Bownes

2 comments/updates on “Suggestions to the BBSRC

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    I noticed the new BBSRC CEO Douglas Kell is on Twitter so I used it to ask him two key questions:

    Why does the BBSRC not follow up the success/otherwise of studentships with their recipients rather than HoDs / grantholders?


    Why does BBRSC allow its funds to be used to pay Cambridge College fees & accept college (non-academic) vetos over degree awards?

    My tweets were ignored for a few days and I contemplated Tweeting my MP @JulianHuppert and asking him to RT my questions (in the same way as historically MPs have forwarded correspondence to public officials which their constituents have found to be uncommunicative when corresponding directly). I instead tweeted:

    Looks like @BBSRC CEO @dbkell is ignoring my tweeted questions. Fustrating as small tweaks could save millons and benefit society.

    This appeared to do the trick as I recieved a response from @DBKell:

    @rtayloruk questions do not appear in my twitter inbox, but the answers to yours will be in next week’s blog at

    As I suspected he hasn’t yet found his /replies and as he doesn’t follow me of course my questions don’t appear on his twitter feed.

    I really hope that either I will learn that a lot has changed in the last couple of years; or that I have been able to prompt the BBSRC CEO into at least considering the value of listening to the experiences of those receiving research studentships and acting to eliminate the problems they have encountered.

    I hope he doesn’t write to say that the research councils’ work for the universities and have no influence over them; but if he does that will be a clear statement to lobby against.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    In the above article I suggest

    • The disciplinary powers of fellows to issue summary punishments ought to be capped / limited.
    • There should be a time limit on college disciplinary action, it should not be allowed to drag on indefinitely.
    • Students should be notified of disciplinary action in writing / email, and given regular updates.
    • There should be oversight of individual fellows currently acting alone on disciplinary matters.

    On Thursday, November 22nd, 2012 The Cambridge Student ran an article drawing attention to the continued unlimited power to fine, charge and punish its students which the university maintains.

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