Increasing PhD led seminars will hamper undergraduates

Increasing PhD students will hamper undergraduates

Logging onto e-vision to find that your seminar tutor for the next term will be a PhD student is a time of mixed emotions.

On the one hand, you’ll be getting a younger, perhaps more technologically aware tutor, who might be a bit more progressive with what you contribute to discussions every week. Excellent – the potential of putting less brainpower into your Friday 4.15 is always welcome news.

Yet, at the same time you won’t be entering a discussion with a world-renowned subject specialist and all of their brilliant thoughts on an obscure and somehow inexplicably fascinating topic. Without insulting PhD students across the board, the simple fact here is; in academic circles, age does often equate to wisdom.

Wanting to have the most experienced tutors isn’t an unreasonable request. Especially if their area of expertise is why you’ve chosen a particular module. As much as you might desire to give an aura of disinterested flippancy about your degree, by applying to York we were all aware of the high quality teaching standards. We weren’t aware of who, in reality, would be providing them.

The University’s website boasts lecturers who are at the top of their academic fields. There’s only so much genius to go around, but need PhD students be the middle ground answer?

Surely it’s not just undergraduate students who might be dissatisfied with this arrangement. PhD students primarily choose to undertake a doctorate in order to further their own studies for three or more years, not to gain teaching experience. Teaching is actually most often a way for PhD students to fund their course, alongside their own academic work.

Some would (albeit melodramatically) term increasing the employment of PhD students as ‘exploitation’. It’s an easy way out for Departments– employ less expensive tutors, save money.

The national budget cuts to education have meant that departments at York are having to reconsider where they spend their money. For some, this means putting the PhD brigade into full force. Of course it’s not easy to decide where to make a loss of some sort. Understandable and inevitably necessary as cuts are, need they be made to the one area which students flock to York for – the teaching?

With the teaching system being changed for first-year undergraduates, advertised as a glorious revolution of teaching and examination methods, prospective students suspect the realities of York academia. They’re already on the case, it would seem. They’ve been asking campus tour guides about how many PhD students the University employs. The future are onto the departments: maybe they won’t be able to get away with this for long.

It’s hard to offer alternative solutions to departmental budget cuts. We can hope that the use of PhD students as seminar tutors will be made clear to prospective students. We could also hope that we won’t be among those getting a PhD seminar tutor for three terms in a row.

Perhaps these departments could bring in a system whereby PhD students are employed largely for first-year seminars, giving second- and third-years with more weighted workloads the most experienced tutors.

In the end, for undergraduate students it’s not about whether your seminar tutor is young enough to be using Facebook proficiently. Geeky as it sounds, it’s about what they can bring to your academic environment. The highest standards can hardly be expected from those who are still undertaking their own academic journey.