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Friday, 8 November 1985
Page: 1849

Senator VANSTONE —I refer the Minister for Education to a recent decision of the United Kingdom's Economic and Social Research Council to blacklist, for the purposes of funding for social science doctorates, 14 universities and polytechnics because their students take so long to complete PhDs. In light of the 1983 report on the Commonwealth post-graduate award scheme published by the Minister's Department, which found that the situation in Australia with respect to the completion of PhDs is worse than that criticised in the United Kingdom, I ask the Minister: Firstly, has any inquiry of the nature of the British Swinnerton-Dyer Committee been conducted or planned with respect to the duration of higher research degrees in Australia; and, secondly, what steps have the Government, the Tertiary Education Commission and/or the Australian Research Grants Committee taken to monitor and discourage poor completion rates in post-graduate research degrees?

Senator RYAN —I am not aware of any research projects similar to the one referred to by Senator Vanstone as having taken place in the United Kingdom. However, there are a number of ways in which the performance of post- graduate students can be monitored. In the first instance it is the responsibility of the institution awarding the degree and, in particular, the supervisors of post-graduate students to monitor their work and to ensure that they are performing satisfactorily. The primary responsibility for the management of post-graduate students ought to remain with institutions. Where post-graduate scholars have awards given to them from sources other than the institution, there is some monitoring of their progress.

I am not aware of any specific new proposal to add to the existing means of monitoring the performance of post-graduate students with respect to the time they take to comeplete their degrees but in line with the Government's determination to achieve better outcomes in education generally at all levels, including that of post-graduate scholars, the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission is undertaking a series of discipline reviews within institutions which will move discipline by discipline to ensure that standards of performance of students gaining those degrees-that will include post-graduate degrees-are satisfactory and have the collective support of institutions and scholars throughout Australia. This is a very constructive move because it will reveal any areas where there has been a lowering of standards and it will provide a way in which individual departments and institutions can be assured that students are maintaining standards. Also, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee is embarking upon an investigation into standards of performance of students at different levels. Both CTEC and the Vice-Chancellors Committee are taking steps which should ensure that the performance of students at all levels, including the post-graduate level, is satisfactory.

Senator VANSTONE —Mr Deputy President, I ask a supplementary question. Accepting that primary responsibility for monitoring rests with the individual institutions, will the Government nonetheless examine the United Kingdom's move to penalise institutions which have poor PhD submission rates to ascertain which institutions do not fulfil their responsibility in this regard?

Senator RYAN —That kind of punitive approach is not the first one that springs to mind in our relationships with institutions via the Tertiary Education Commission. If a large number of students were failing to complete their courses or were taking far too long to complete them some steps would have to be taken. However, at this stage I certainly have no evidence that would prompt the use of very severe penalties such as reducing grants. Given the growing pressure for places within tertiary institutions and the rise in standards as demonstrated by the increasing number of marks required to get into certain courses, there is a great deal of competition for places in institutions and post-graduate places. There is certainly a very great deal of competition for post-graduate awards. I would think that this highly competitive atmosphere would militate against institutions tolerating a poor performance by their post-graduate students. In answer to Senator Vanstone's supplementary question, I will ask CTEC to advise on any information it has which suggests that further action may be needed.