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Annual Report of the Board of Graduate Studies for 2003

The BOARD OF GRADUATE STUDIES beg leave to report to the Council as follows:

1. External developments

(a) Institutional Audit

The University was one of the first institutions to undergo the new style of Institutional Audit, 28 April - 2 May 2003. The auditors took as their thematic study the support for taught graduate students and the work of the Board in relation to both taught and research graduate students. A large selection of documents was submitted by the Board for scrutiny. The Chairman, Secretary, and two members of the Board attended certain meetings with the auditors, some of which were also attended by the Chairman of the General Board's review of M.Phil. provision, the Chairman of the Graduate Tutors' Committee, Degree Committee Secretaries, and M.Phil. course directors.

The graduate programmes of certain institutions were also audited: History; Astronomy; Experimental Psychology; and International Studies. In all cases, the quality of learning experiences and the support provided were found to be 'suitable'.

The Board reviewed the main findings of the Audit concerning its core activities during the year: the development of a common structure for describing and managing the standards of taught postgraduate awards; consideration of the learning resource implications for the planned further expansion of graduate numbers, both full- and part-time; and establishment of full student membership of the Board.


The Board continued to discuss and comment on successive drafts of the HEFCE document 'Improving Standards in Postgraduate Research Degree Programmes'. The Board were generally satisfied that its procedures met most of the recommendations set out in the report, but noted that some issues deserved further discussion, for example, the suggestion that provision be made for a neutral 'chair' for the viva. The Board's views contributed to the General Board's response on behalf of the University, commenting particularly on the difficulties posed for small Departments by the recommendation for research students each to have an advisory 'team' and on the suggestion that the number of research students per supervisor should be limited to six.

The requirement for universities to provide HE progress files for graduate students by 2005 was discussed. It was noted that the progress log currently in use in the Schools of Biological Sciences and Clinical Medicine, and which had been modified for use in all institutions for charting the progress of part-time students, offers a model for the form and use of a progress file. It was also noted that the Research Councils/Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) requirement for skills training would require a similar log for candidates to keep a record of their own training and for Degree Committees to monitor their progress.

(c) Transferable skills training

The Board considered a Joint Statement made in response to the Roberts Review (SET for Success) by the Research Councils and the AHRB regarding the provision of transferable skills training for all holders of their research studentships. The Board noted the requirement for ten days a year of skills training and the availability of funding to support this provision and agreed that if possible, training should be extended to all research students, whether funded by the Research Councils/AHRB or not. The Board are in consultation with the Schools to develop a co-ordinated institutional approach.

(d) Research Councils/AHRB

The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) announced changes to its provision of awards for Masters Degrees and plans for a framework of skills training centred on the individual needs of candidates; the views of the relevant Degree Committees were sought and an institutional response made.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) both announced their intention to transfer most of their studentship support for graduate students to Doctoral Training Accounts (DTA) with effect from 2004. The BBSRC had been conducting a pilot DTA scheme in the Department of Biochemistry in 2002-03. These accounts provide a block grant to the University for the support of graduate students according to flexible arrangements within broad general rules regarding eligibility, duration of award, and minimum stipends. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been managing the majority of its studentship in this way for the past few years. The Board welcome the flexibility that the DTA scheme provides, but note with regret first that the DTA makes no provision for extra payments for College fees, which then have to be recovered as a first call on expenditure from the DTA thus reducing the number of studentships available annually, and secondly that the administrative burden has been transferred from the Research Council to the University without any financial recognition of the implications.

The Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) undertook a review of the mode of delivery of studentships for doctoral and masters ('1+3') training. The Board consulted the Degree Committees and were able to convey a wide range of views on the proposal to move towards a system of 'quota' awards (as has until recently been the preferred method of the other Research Councils) and away from the 'student-driven' competition currently employed by the ESRC in common with the AHRB.

The EPSRC launched a Collaborative Training Account (CTA) scheme on 1 September to run in parallel with its existing DTA. The CTA provides an umbrella for all studentship schemes in which academic training is linked with industrial experience. Following discussion with the Schools of Technology and Physical Sciences, it was agreed to submit a bid to EPSRC for CTA funding in May 2004, to commence in October 2005. The Secretary of the School of Technology was nominated to manage the scheme.

The Board are increasingly aware of the proliferation of initiatives emanating from the Research Councils and AHRB and the challenges these present to the University in responding adequately to the opportunities they provide.

Take-up of offers (confirmed admissions as percentages of offers made)


2. Admissions and student numbers

(a) Applications (Table 1 a-d)

The overall number of applications for admission in 2003 rose by 32% compared to the previous year (Table 1d); this is in comparison to an 8.3% increase in the previous year. (This annual report covers a calendar year; much of this increase is caused by an influx in the weeks before Christmas 2003 of applications for 2004 - see section 2c.) Applications from UK students rose by 16%, continuing the upward trend shown last year. The total number of applications from UK candidates is now about 86% of the peak of the early 1990s, compared to approximately 75% last year. Applications from EU students also rose, (+6.5%), again reinforcing last year's upturn. However, applications from overseas students rose most sharply (+41%), with a large increase in applications from the People's Republic of China for the second year running; this particular trend has been noted at most British universities.

Applications for M.Phil. courses rose by 38%; increases were noted in all constituencies (UK +19.8%; EU +5.9%; Overseas +48.8%). Applications from UK candidates for research courses rose substantially (+11.9%) for the first time in several years, to the highest level seen since 1998. The similar increase in applications from EU candidates (+10.9%) and the even sharper increase in overseas applicants (+35.7%) for research more than counters the downward trends of previous years, and as a result the overall number of applications is higher than it has ever been. Applications to other taught postgraduate courses (see the footnote to Table 1) also increased sharply (+22%), again to their highest ever figure. Here the rise in EU numbers (+1.3%) was smaller than the general trend, with the rises in overseas numbers (+30%) and in applications from UK candidates (+11.2%) more in line with figures for other categories of course.

The Board considered in detail six applications from prospective students whose formal academic qualifications did not meet its normal minimum entry requirements, but for whom admission was recommended by Degree Committees.

(b) Offers of admission, confirmation, and numbers coming into residence (Table 2 a-d)

The number of conditional offers of admission was 3,940 (sum of Tables 2a and 2b) compared to 3,910 in 2002; this small rise follows an exceptionally large increase of 18% in 2002. M.Phil. offers rose by only 1.9%, with offers to UK candidates (+6.9%) and Overseas candidates (+3%) just compensating for a marked drop in offers to EU candidates (-12.2%). The number of offers made for other courses fell marginally (-0.4%), with offers to EU candidates again accounting for the difference (-8.4%), compared to small increases for UK candidates (+1.6%) and Overseas candidates (+0.6%).

The number of offers confirmed by the Board remained at around the same level as in the previous year. The 'take up' of offers across all constituencies is remarkably constant from year to year at about 50%, almost regardless of the many major external factors that might affect the ability of candidates to meet the conditions of their offers. Some factors, however, affect disproportionately some groups of students. For example, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) during the summer of 2003 had a profound effect on the ability of many candidates from south-east Asia, particularly from China, to fulfil the requirements for their admission. In many cases, degree courses could not be completed and most centres for testing English language proficiency closed in the vital period. Most of the affected candidates holding conditional offers for 2003 were granted deferred offers for 2004. Several Colleges and some courses reported a shortfall in the number of candidates arriving to begin their studies in October 2003.

The overall result was that the total number of graduates coming into residence in 2003 was slightly fewer than in 2002, at 1,942 (-0.9%). Numbers were down for both UK and EU students (-1.3% and -7.4% respectively), but this was balanced by an increase in the number of new overseas students coming into residence (+1.6%). The decrease in numbers coming into residence is not evenly distributed between men and women: the number of new male students is down by 3.5% while the number of new female students, although still significantly lower, continues to rise, by 2.9% this year.

The disaggregation of new entrants by School shows the proportions of the intake in each School to have remained relatively stable:

Arts and Humanities15%16%15%14.3%15.9%
Humanities and Social Sciences35%32%33%30.9%30.8%
Physical Sciences18%20%17%18.3%17%
Biological Sciences20%19%20%19.3%13.2%
Clinical Medicine----5.2%*

*Figures for the School of the Biological Sciences include Clinical Medicine for previous years.

The number of Cambridge graduates staying on to take graduate courses fell by 10.9% compared to last year's figure: it remains, however, at the highest level of any year (with the exception of 2002) for 10 years (Table 2e).

(c) Admissions processes

The Board continued to review its performance in processing applications and admitting candidates.

Again, the 2002-03 admissions process was slow in the early stages and a backlog of applications occurred during the period January - April 2003, although this backlog and the subsequent offers were cleared in time for the funding deadlines of the Cambridge Trusts in mid-May.

The Board therefore concentrated efforts on improving these initial stages of the admissions process for 2003-04. For the first time, the Board employed a post office box for admissions, which proved very effective in separating admissions from general post.

With the full co-operation of two Faculties (Economics and Politics, and Physics and Chemistry), the early stages of the process were completely or partly devolved to these Faculties. In the case of Economics and Politics, applications were sent direct to the Faculty; the Board arranged to collect sufficient information to log the application and connect the applicant to the online tracker, but the first contact the Board's office had with the full application was at the point of an offer or rejection being made. This scheme caused extra work for the Faculties concerned, but the benefits of speeding up the consideration of papers and of being in control of the process were welcomed by them. The Board's Admissions Office has also benefited from a reduced influx of 'raw' applications in these subjects, which has speeded up the processing of other applications. Both Faculties wish to continue with the arrangements and it is hoped to extend the practice further in due course. As a further improvement, the handling of each application in the Board's Admissions Office has been pared down to a bare minimum.

Another striking feature of the 2002-03 admissions round was the large increase in applications arriving between October and Christmas 2003. This trend had begun in earlier years, when the Gates Cambridge Trust competition for candidates domiciled in the USA set a deadline in November. However, it was further exacerbated in 2003 by the Universities UK announcing that its deadline for applications for ORS awards for 2004 entry had been brought forward by ten weeks. The Board therefore set a deadline for candidates seeking to apply for the ORS awards for 2004 at 31 December 2003. In the event, the number of candidates applying for the ORS has not been greatly affected by the change, and a positive effect of the new deadline has been to spread the main peak of the arrival of applications at the Board's Office.

The Board were greatly encouraged by progress made with speeding up the final stages of admissions process (from the offer, through College placement, to confirmation of admission); this was helped, to a very large extent, by the new arrangements to cut down the circulation of papers to Colleges by entering all candidates whose papers have been considered by five Colleges into a pool. This proved to be an effective way for finding places for candidates more quickly and allowing Graduate Tutors to tailor offers to the vacancies in their College as circumstances changed throughout the summer. A pool system will operate again in 2004.

The Joint Committee on Disability invited the Board to consider the arrangements for the gathering and disclosure of information about the special needs of candidates for graduate admission. The Board noted that the current means of collecting such information and its use by Faculties, Departments, Colleges, and the Disability Resource Centre required updating in the light of the Disability Discrimination Act. It was agreed that the Secretary of the Board should work with the Joint Committee to develop a policy and a suitable disclosure form and procedure for use in the 2004-05 admissions round.

3. Academic developments

(a) Degrees

The Board approved proposals from a range of Faculties and Departments and from several Colleges to admit part-time research students and the first seven part-time Ph.D. Degree students were admitted from October 2003. The Board has produced handbooks for part-time students and for Faculties taking part in the scheme, but accepts that it will continue to discuss aspects of the admission of part-time students as case histories develop.

During the year, the Board also considered proposals for two new types of degree: the Eng.D. and M.Res. The Eng.D. is one of a group of degrees known as 'professional doctorates' that provide an opportunity for the candidate to spend time in an industry or profession, to undertake specific training, and to write a dissertation. The Board noted that professional doctorates are offered widely across the UK and attract significant support from the EPSRC and agreed that the proposal should be taken forward subject to further discussion.

The proposal for an M.Res. Degree arose from the rather specific requirements for research training set down by the ESRC for its studentship holders. These requirements make it desirable to create a distinctive type of taught training degree that could be taken on its own as a prelude to a research degree, or sequentially following an M.Phil. course. The Board saw considerable merit in the proposal. However, it was decided that the matter would not be taken forward while the need could be met within the current arrangements for the M.Phil. Degree.

Over the course of the year, the Board considered and gave its support to proposals for new M.Phil. Degree courses in: Design, Manufacture, and Management (to replace the existing Postgraduate Certificate); History of Art and Architecture (to replace the existing Certificate of Postgraduate Studies); and Advanced Chemical Engineering Practice (under the CMI arrangements). The first steps were taken in the consideration of proposals for new M.Phil. courses to start in 2004 in Computational Biology and Micro- and Nanotechnology Enterprise (both under the aegis of CMI). A major new strand for the M.Phil. in English Studies (Criticism and Culture) was approved.

The Board welcomed the development of first attempts to model the actual costs of, and income attributable to, M.Phil. courses. The advent of the RAM will make such costing an essential part of any proposal for new or significantly modified taught courses.

Minor changes were approved to the regulations for the M.Phil. examinations in Economics; History and Philosophy of Science; Theology and Religious Studies; Archaeology (Option B); Oriental Studies; Epidemiology; Quantitative Modelling of Industrial Processes (to be known as Fluid Flow in Industry and the Environment); Modern Society and Global Transformations; and in the Certificates of Postgraduate Studies in Law, and Materials Science and Metallurgy.

The two-year M.Phil. Degree in Chinese Studies, in which candidates spend three terms in China, was severely affected by the SARS epidemic; alternative arrangements were made to enable candidates to complete the course.

A proposal for a new part-time taught course, the M.St. Degree in Clinical Effectiveness, was considered and approved. Changes in title of the two M.St. Degrees in Criminology were approved (to Applied Criminology, Penology, and Management, and Applied Criminology and Police Management respectively).

(c) Other academic developments

(i) Examining

A new Guide to Examiners of the Ph.D., M.Sc., and M.Litt. Degrees was published in January 2003 to embody the various developments discussed by the Board in the previous two years. Important changes include: open reporting by examiners; clarification of the distinction between 'approval subject to correction' and 'revision'; and more detailed advice on the examination of revised dissertations. The Board, in consultation with Degree Committees, further agreed that examiners' reports should routinely be available not only to the candidate but also to the supervisor.

The Board reviewed the process for collecting, considering, and acting upon reports by the External Examiners of taught M.Phil. Degree courses. It was agreed to bring the process more closely into line with that used for such reports for Tripos examinations. The Board also began discussions on the need for a formal letter of appointment to be drawn up for External Examiners for the M.Phil. Degree.

The problem of plagiarism in graduate examinations was discussed in the light of experience in the 2003 examinations. It was noted that there is increasing concern in British universities about an upsurge in the unacknowledged use of the work of others and passing it off as the candidate's own. The Board agreed to work with the Board of Examinations in developing a policy that could be applied across the whole range of University examinations.

The Board undertook its biennial review of fees and payments to examiners, taking the survey carried out by the University of London of rates offered by other comparable institutions as a benchmark. The Board agreed to increase all examiners' payments and candidates' fees by 20%, except for the assessor's fee for Higher Doctorates, which had fallen well below the national average and was therefore raised by 46% to bring it back into line. It was also agreed to introduce a piece rate for M.Phil. Degree examining in addition to the flat rate fee.

(ii) Supervisors and supervision reports

The officers of the Board expanded the programme of training sessions for supervisors by planning and delivering a series of eight lunch-time training sessions for graduate supervisors; a small group of supervisors attended all sessions and others attended for specific topics. This programme is in addition to the half-day induction meeting for new supervisors held annually in Michaelmas Term.

The Board's online supervision reporting system, CamGRAD, was launched in the Michaelmas Term 2003 as a pilot study in the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry. The CamGRAD Steering Group (whose members are drawn from MISD, the Computing Service, the Senior Tutors' Committee, the Graduate Tutors' Committee, and the Degree Committee for Physics and Chemistry) reviewed the outcome of the pilot and was pleased to support the extension of the scheme to the rest of the University in the Lent and Easter Terms 2004.

A system was developed for collecting reports on the progress of M.St. Degree students; it is hoped to bring this system within CamGRAD in due course.

(iii) Non-University institutions

Two non-University institutions, in which candidates for a research degree of the University may spend all nine terms of their course, successfully reapplied under the new arrangements for approval: Human Genome Mapping Project, Hinxton (under the Degree Committee for the Faculty of Biology); and the NERC Centre for Hydrology and Ecology; Monks Wood (under the Degree Committee for the Faculty of Earth Sciences and Geography). This brings to sixteen the number of approved non-University institutions under Regulation 4 for the Ph.D., M.Sc., and M.Litt. Degrees.

(iv) Review of the Board's activities

Following the difficult experiences of the 2002 and 2003 admissions rounds, and in the light of the Institutional Audit, the Board undertook a review of its activities in the summer of 2003. A paper was offered to the General Board that reflected on the challenges facing the Board in continuing to deliver its core functions against a background of increasing numbers of applicants and admissions, of changing pressures from external sources and of its expanding range of activities. The paper asked the General Board to consider in particular the University's strategy for graduate numbers and the future make-up of the student community and, in the light of this, to consider whether the University is better served by an expansion of the Board to meet these challenges, or by devolution of some or many of the Board's activities to 'graduate schools'. In either case, a reorganization and increase in resources would be necessary to support the current rate of growth in provision for graduate education.

The Board also reviewed the activities of its Committee on Grants and noted with concern that the number of major awards the Committee is able to make annually to UK and EU graduate students (Domestic Research Studentships and Millennium Scholarships) is falling. It was noted that new strategies are needed to replenish and to deploy the funds more effectively.

4. Submission rates for the Ph.D. Degree, approval for Degrees, and failure rates

The four-year submission rate for Ph.D. Degree students was 75% this year when calculated against the total number of students who began in Michaelmas Term 1999 and who did not subsequently withdraw within the first twelve months (Tables 8a and 8b).

During the year, the Board approved 836 candidates for the Ph.D. Degree, three for the M.Sc. Degree, one for the M.Litt. Degree, and 935 for the M.Phil. Degree (Table 9).

The failure rate for M.Phil. courses was again about 2% with an imbalance between the results for male and female candidates, although in the opposite direction from the previous year (Table 10). The failure rate for the M.St. Degree is shown for the first time this year. Some of the candidates who failed the M.Phil. Degree were subsequently allowed to be re-examined under Regulation 12 of the General Regulations for the admission of graduate students due to ill health or other grave hindrance in preparing for or taking the examination, or as a result of a review of their examination procedure (see below); three of these candidates failed the second examination. The figures do not include candidates who do not complete the course.

Eight candidates were approved for the Ph.D. Degree under Special Regulations and one was not approved (these are not included in the figures in Tables 9 and 10).

In 2003, the Board approved nine candidates for the Sc.D. Degree, three for the Litt.D. Degree, and one for the LL.D. Degree.

5. Awards

5.1 ORS Awards

The quota for nominations allocated to the University of Cambridge fell again, to 135, from 155 in the previous year. However, the success rate of candidates put forward remained at its usual high level (86%).

The Board received the results of the HEFCE policy review of the ORS scheme and noted with regret that the recommendations the University had put forward had generally not been adopted. It was further noted that the scheme as it now operates has deviated significantly from its original intentions of permitting the best overseas candidates who would not otherwise be able to afford to do so, to attend the University of their choice. The ORS Committee has, through imposing a quota on the number of nominations a university can make, and by cutting severely the allocation to Cambridge and Oxford each year, effectively reduced the candidates' choice.

5.2 Other awards

The Board has continued to make awards from its General Fund and from the Lundgren Fund to research students registered for the Ph.D. Degree who find themselves in unforeseen financial hardship. In the course of the year the Board has provided assistance to 62 Graduate Students through these various schemes to a total value of £57,333. Other small grants were made to students to assist with dissertation binding and other minor expenses. The Board continues to make a contribution from its General Fund to the Domestic Research Students Awards Scheme.

In 2003, the Committee on Grants awarded 20 new full or partial Domestic Research Studentships (the equivalent of twelve full-cost awards) and three Millennium Scholarships. Seventeen offers of partial maintenance awards (Allen, Meek, and Read, and Le Bas Scholarships) were made. The Committee warmly acknowledged the support offered by the Isaac Newton Trust for the DRS scheme, both in its continuing contribution and in its agreement to provide a financial safety-net to allow the Committee to make more offers of DRS awards before the announcement of Research Council and AHRB awards without fear of over-committing the funds at an early stage.

6. Regulations for the review of the results of examination for postgraduate qualifications

During 2003, the Board considered five new cases (ten in 2002, eight in 2001, nine in 2000) in the first stages of the procedure for the review of the results of examinations for postgraduate qualifications (Statutes and Ordinances, 2003, p. 409). All of these were candidates for the M.Phil. Degree. Three cases (all M.Phil.) were referred to the Review Committee. Three reports regarding M.Phil. candidates were received from the Review Committee (compared with one in 2002, zero in 2001, three in 2000); all were dismissed by the Review Committee as having no prima facie case, although one was subsequently granted an examination allowance by the Board.

The Board considered one complaint about an examination for the Sc.D. Degree.

7. Membership of the Board

Professor P. F. Kornicki retired at the end of his tenure on 31 December 2003; Professor R. Osborne was appointed by the Council to replace him from 1 January 2004. Dr F. J. Leeper stood down as the representative of the Graduate Tutors' Committee and was replaced by Dr L. E. A. Howe. Dr G. M. W. Cook was appointed by the Council to fill a vacancy caused by the retirement of Dr D. Ferguson.

The Board agreed that the status of the graduate student who currently attends the open business of the Board should be formalized in the Board's constitution to confer full membership to allow the student representative to attend for open business only.

8. Staff changes

The Board's Admissions Officer, Mr Nick Tippler, was seconded to the CamSIS project for two years with effect from 1 July 2003. His role has been taken for the duration of his secondment by Mrs Linda Whitebread and Ms Jenni Hearn, with the Secretary taking overall responsibility for the Admissions Office. Mrs Louise Everard left the Board's office in December; a new Studentships Officer (Assistant Registrary), Dr Sarah James, was appointed to take up post in 2004.

15 June 2004 W. A. BROWN (Chairman)L. F. GLADDENR. OSBORNE

Copies of the list of Graduate Students on the Register at 1 December 2003 are available from the Secretary, Board of Graduate Studies, 4 Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1RZ.

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Cambridge University Reporter 6 August 2004
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