Conference 2004 Report - PG: Suitable for All?

The NPC Annual Conference this year took place at Coventry University from the 12th-15th August 2004 with the title "PG: Suitable for all?". The key part of the conference focused on postgraduates in light of reform of higher education. Not only the higher education bill had passed but there were many other developments moving from beyond the higher education white paper. Most notably there has been continuous discussion over research and teaching links as well as the new Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) code of practice for research degrees, both of which NPC have been heavily involved in over the past year. Other highlights of conference included focus group discussions of current work undertaken by NPC and UK GRAD on user perceptions of personal development planning as well as an address from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).

The first opening speech was given by Dr Ian Gibson MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, House of Commons. The input from Dr Gibson was a most excellent kick start to the conference where he brought out the good, the bad and the ugly of a long overdue debate to address the ever growing needs in higher education. The good news included the incoming of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), where this will have much improvement of supporting research and postgraduates in the arts and humanities. Dr Gibson also mentioned the idea of a research council focusing on third world development to fund research and innovative solutions to contribute to the third world. Elitism also has been hit at through the introduction of the Office for Fair Access where science in particular will benefit significantly. On the bad side, his immense concern over top up fees was brought out where the focus has been too biased to undergraduates with little attention paid to how the impact of fees will be a threat to continuation of study at postgraduate level.

As well as student funding issues, Dr Gibson focused on the concentration of research funding and how it has too greater focus on research excellence with little attention to teaching and the value it also has. The past RAE system was seen by Dr Gibson as a discouragement to longer term speculative research with a negative impact on staff morale and teaching. As well as that he noted the community benefit and how research is disseminated to the "third leg" to widen appreciation to more audiences. His question for the future was how struggling departments will be revived in the future and not just kept afloat and whether regional development agencies will play a role in improving the regional academic infrastructure. The ugly is seen by Dr Gibson as an uneven future development of Universities where the more prestigious will be in a higher league than others and competing with an international market where also postgraduate study and research will be heavily concentrated with such institutions. A concluding point was for NPC to play a vital role in gathering the evidence to see where exactly the impact will be over the top up fees issue and where choice for postgraduates will be limited as well as the supply of UK postgraduates will be under threat.

The following speech given by Dr Steve Wharton, soon to be president of the Association of University Teachers, gave the perspective from his own lecturers union on the impact of the current government agenda. One of his first points he mentioned was the issue over whether we should engage with the general public, and the unfair consideration of "Mickey Mouse" degrees as described by government. Dr Wharton also gave his opinions about the funding issues in terms of whether Treasury will again claw back funding due to the extra income received from tuition fees, no promises have been made as such that they will not. Further to this there is a need for a bursary scheme to help students from lower income families into higher education. Whether this will benefit the institution is questionable and also Dr Wharton was concerned that the student fees were not nearly meeting the real term costs of higher education.

Research and teaching links were covered also by Dr Wharton as a member of the Department for Education and Skills Higher Education Research Forum which the General Secretary of the NPC is also a member. Here Dr Wharton expressed increased concern for the lack of teaching contracts available and lack of academic freedom from the proposals made. He also had the idea of postgraduate research students being part of the teaching process where they as those engaged in the workings of research can disseminate knowledge down to those receiving the teaching, where he expressed increased concern over the increasing divide between research intensive and teaching intensive institutions. A further point was noted in Scotland where the Scottish Executive have planned "Standard Tertiary Education Providers" by which pre-92 and post-92 sector institutions have been classed differently. This contradicts Scotland’s plans to equalise the support to further and higher education. Finally Dr Wharton expressed his concern over criteria for teaching only institutions, which could significantly affect higher education against the Bologna criteria which define Universities as having a need to include research.

The final presentation of the first day was given by Gill Clarke and Janet Bohrer of the Quality Assurance Agency who were able to address attendees on the institutional audit process and how students play an important role in conveying the student perceptions of an institution. In the future audit processes will have significantly more criteria on assessment of the delivery of research degrees with the introduction of the new code of practice for research degrees. The new code of practice, where NPC played a significant role in putting it together, incorporates a range of standards including supervision, training and complaints mechanisms for research students. The most difficult aspects of the code to implement were accommodating second supervisors, meeting the training needs of a diverse population of research students, ensuring a cognate research environment is available to the research student. Such criteria have significant difference between disciplines. One other area of concern was the conduct of viva examinations and whether they should include a chair to aid transparency in the examination process. The presentation gave a useful overview of how the code of practice had come together and how it would then be used for institutions to re-implement their own codes of practice where representation from postgraduates is of significant importance.

Friday morning of conference opened with Ellen Pearce, the manager of the UK GRAD Programme, a centre of excellence for training in research. NPC has had a long standing relationship with NPC over the years with constant improvements to the training of postgraduate research students. Over the past year, NPC and UK GRAD have made close collaboration with the Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA) on personal development planning and progress files for research students. NPC has played an important role by conducting an online survey gaining responses from nearly 1400 research students on their perceptions and the benefits they find of personal development planning. This presentation presented the results of the survey considering how few were identifying PDP to assist their training needs or ascertain qualities they can cite on their CV. Following that focus groups took place where further evidence was gathered by discussing some of the mixed views brought out in the survey.

The first Independent Adjudicator, Dame Ruth Deech, gave a significant presentation on the second day of conference with an introduction to the office and how it intends to fulfil its role in higher education. Dame Ruth recognised the difficulty of postgraduate research programmes where thesis rejection, exam conduct and quality of supervision were causing immense problems to the research student. Their awareness of the code of practice for research degrees as well as the need to ensure effective internal complaints mechanisms was of paramount importance to them so that they would not have to deal with increasing numbers of complaints externally. A further point made by Dame Ruth was the lack of attention institutions were giving to making easily accessible information about student complaints and the use of the OIA to the individual student. Not only institutions but student representative bodies have a role in ensuring this information is available and NPC will certainly be interested in ensuring this information is publicised further by student representative bodies.