On the 20th May 2004, four representatives from NPC (Tim Brown, Tim Roll-Pickering, Chris Neville-Smith and Tasha Hirst) went along to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to meet Alan Johnson MP, Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. The meeting discussed a number of items including issues around career development loans, NPC’s efforts on lobbying Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to fund taught postgraduate courses, issues around new EU students being charged overseas fees and widening participation towards postgraduate education.
To open the meeting Tim Brown started with the positive aspects of postgraduate education in higher education reform including the radical changes to funding and support for research students. This, however, did not overcome the concern NPC has over the lack of mention of taught postgraduates in the higher education white paper in terms of teaching excellence, funding where there is a need for taught postgraduates or allowing progression to research degrees where researchers are needed. NPC has particular concern from its analysis carried out that there is a distinct lack of compatibility between the student loan and the career development loan in terms of how they two are paid back. The case was presented in this regard to at the very least extend the student loan to postgraduates and reference was given also to a current amendment tabled in the Lords on the higher education bill at the time of going to press by Lord Freyberg and Baroness Sharp of Guildford to do exactly this.
Mr Johnson responded in agreement that there was no specific reference to taught postgraduates in the white paper and did recognise the concerns about repayment of a Career Development Loan. While extending the student loan might be all very well he did mention that there would be problems with obtaining public money to further subsidise the student loan. The main factor to consider there is any evidence of market failure in supply of UK postgraduates, which could be sought after by further research. There was certainly interest in further investigating the Career Development Loan, since it has been in existence many years now.
On the subject of RDAs, Tim Brown also reported progress there in terms of writing a paper to the North West RDA awaiting response at the time. Mr Johnson gave his support for the proposal and encouraged further pursue all RDAs on the matter by reaching the needs of the economy through funding taught postgraduate courses needed. It is hoped that this will have some progress in due course.
The slightly difficult subject of new EU students being charged only from the forthcoming academic year was the next on the agenda. Mr Johnson did confirm that students from EU accession countries would be regarded as EU students from the start of the forthcoming academic year with the current rule that students who have lived in the EU for more than 3 years being relaxed in this instance. As for refunding the fee differences from the 1st May to the end of the academic year in 2004, it was argued that this is a matter for institutions and bodies representing them. In some instances there may be the case that students are charged on a termly basis such that any fees they are charged after the 1st May could be charged at EU rate.
Finally the subject of widening participation was covered but looking in the wider context of accessible funding and also research being available in every region to enable access to research. This was particularly seen in respect of science and innovation and making it available around the UK to encourage as many as possible to research in such a field regardless of geographical location. This led to discussion about the current extent of research in the inclusion of social classes at postgraduate level and the necessity of building upon current research undertaken by Paul Wakeling at the University of York. A further point was raised by Tasha Hirst, however, on the broader aspects of widening participation to incorporate women, ethnic groups, disabled students and others whom have been traditionally disadvantaged by circumstances or lack of funding that hinders their ability to study at advanced level or carry research. This was identified as important also and Mr Johnson encouraged us to produce some briefing/publication on the matter with outcomes from our last conference.
Overall the outcome of the meeting, although swift, was encouraging in terms of feeding in unseen information readily conveyed across to a Ministerial audience, which is an excellent opportunity for lobbying government on matters concerning NPC. It is hoped this will propagate further down the channels to strengthen the message of marketised higher education not leading our institutions to rely on international postgraduates to meet their costs.