NPC Meets Margaret Hodge

This report has been put together as an overview of the visit NPC made to DfES to meet Margaret Hodge MBE, the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. This was a first opportunity for NPC to present its policy to a government audience on issues concerning postgraduate funding and maintaining the supply of postgraduates. Items discussed during the meeting included state funding for postgraduates, undergraduate debt and funding for research students. Not all that came out of the meeting was necessarily good news, however, there were some very positive and constructive ideas that NPC hopes will be taken further.

On the 22nd May, the General Secretary, Tim Brown, along with the Treasurer, Tim Roll Pickering and the Past General Secretary, James Groves joined the NPCs Honorary President, Prof Sir Martin Harris to go and meet Margaret Hodge MBE, the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. The meeting took place in the grand location of the Department for Employment and Skills (DfES) in the Sanctuary Buildings, London.

The main aim of the meeting was to present some of NPCs concerns following the outcomes of a report that NPC commissioned the University of Warwick Students Union to undertake, which was sponsored by CSU Prospects Ltd. The meeting opened on a positive note where we were able to give our praise for the increased funding and support to postgraduate research, which was gladly accepted. In light of that, however, NPC raised its concern that the white paper does not appear to accommodate both taught and research postgraduates, particularly in light of the need to allow graduates to undertake a postgraduate taught degree in order to pursue a research degree. This would particularly relate to aspects of the funding survey report so it was made the main item for discussion.

Following this brief introduction it was put to the Minister that there is an ever growing number of postgraduates, with a wide variety of funding mechanisms in place. Some were in a position where they were suitably funded where as others were not, possibly leading to some postgraduates being unable to further their studies. It was also raised that Scotland already has a Postgraduate Students Awards Scheme (PSAS), where it was seen that funding or partly funding Masters degrees was of benefit to lifelong learning and the economy in a number of subject areas. Margarets response to this was that at DfES, it is seen that postgraduate funding mainly comes from the research councils, where supply is in need. In the current budget plans, there is no intention to extend existing arrangements for funding postgraduate taught courses from direct state support over the whole span of postgraduate study due to insufficient money at present. With regards to Scotland, her response was that devolution is devolution such that it is difficult to directly model their example with a significantly different structure.

The next main point raised, where our support from Sir Martin was greatly appreciated is that Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) could be playing a significant role in this process. With the evident anxiety there is for many students to continue to postgraduate level study there is little way forward at present under current funding proposals. By evaluating the local needs of the economy, a RDA could be a useful means to determine where funding is needed to best support the economy, which would include funding and supporting postgraduates. This idea was welcomed, and it would be investigated as to whether it is permissible for RDAs to undertake this kind of activity. NPC hopes this will be taken further, as it was considered a good plan in the interim.

Following this it was also pushed that there is benefit in undertaking a Master level degree, such that the employment potential and specialist knowledge of such a person is significantly enhanced. Margaret responded to this by asking Should DfES be pushing this?. Further to this she raised that a number of important subjects including teaching and healthcare are being widely funded as this is of benefit to society. Further to this she asked Who is benefiting from education funding is it the economy, the employer or the individual? The limit on funding was again mentioned such that priorities had to be set in what courses or research programmes are funded and that significant increases Research Council postgraduate awards had been announced with additional funds being targeted at shortage areas, where the recruitment of suitably qualified students was particularly difficult.

On this note, one highly concerning issue for NPC was raised that Career Development Loans are the only option should a UK postgraduate have no other source of funding. In light of undergraduate debt ever increasing it was asked whether arrangements here could change such that they were more compatible with the undergraduate loan that would have to be paid back. The idea of a non-commercial loan was suggested also. Again Margarets response was that there was again no funding to support this, nor was there any way that the repayment threshold of 15,000 at undergraduate level could be increased with the costs involved in subsidising such loans.

Following this, the important points had been dealt with in good time so other minor issues could be noted with time still available. The issue of Bologna came up following discussion particularly in light of the level of postgraduate degrees. Also the formation of the Arts and Humanities Research Council was praised where the benefits of RDAs being involved was again pushed so that it could be seen how these would be taken on board.

Before the end of the meeting, a final point that NPC will investigate in the future is the issue of postgraduates spending more than 6 years in study and research after the age of 16, may not be able to make National Insurance contributions to their pension. Margarets response to this was that there is now a growing trend towards individual contributions to pensions and that a green paper produced by the Department of Work and Pensions should be noted.

In conclusion, there were positive aspects of the meeting in terms of how RDAs could be more involved in providing where postgraduates are most needed. This is something that NPC were greatly encouraged by. The lack of funding to overcome the extreme financial barriers was discouraging, but it is hoped that our input will help these issues to be considered in future strategy plans as the widening participation agenda hopefully expands.