NPC meets Minister for HE

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On 4th September, Tim Roll-Pickering and Simon Felton from the NPC together with Richard Angell from the NUS met with the Minister for Higher Education Bill Rammell MP.

Bill Rammell MP

We discussed the impact of debt on postgraduate education and council tax exemption for writing-up students.

The Impact of Debt
We presented Bill Rammell with a factsheet and a briefing paper on the impact of debt from our own research and that conducted by Hobsons and other organisations.

The NPC Market Failure of Postgraduate Education research showed:

  • that over half of social classes D and E were planning to enter postgraduate education but that social class E was twice as likely to state they were plannning to study part time.
  • Respondents from social class D were substantially more likely to report that financial concerns had a strong influence on their choice of study mode.
  • Majority of those not intending to study (58%) reasoned they were unable to afford it or it was too expensive.
  • Almost 3/4 said planned tuition fee and 62% debt from previous study were reason not to consider postgrduate study.

The Hobsons Y11-13 research on 12,375 students found that 27% of those surveyed were less likely to go to university because of tuition fees.
Further research of current undergraduates higlighted that 73% were willing to pay a maximum of £5000 for postgraduate study.

Tom Sastry's 2004 report on Postgraduate Education for HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) showed that the number of UK domiciled students achieving first or upper second class honours (a reasonable pool from which UK postgraduates are drawn) was increasing but there was not a corresponding increase in research student numbers. This suggests the attractiveness of research degrees has declined.

The recently published research on enhanced stipends also suggested a concern over increasing debt (Assessing the impact of the Roberts Review Enhanced Stipends and Salaries on Postgraduate and Postdoctoral Positions, Ackers et al, 2006). This research noted that the growing incidence of student debt might impact on feeder routes for home grown rsearchers. The effect of a declining pool of domicile students was being mitigated by the continued ability to recruit researchers from abroad.
We also noted the concern that in some disciplines such as engineering the increase in debt (estimates by EPSCR to be 20% higher) would be greater than other areas such as the Arts due to the length of programmes.

Bill Rammell was sympathetic to the concerns but said that there was no money available from the treasury for a programme such as Postgraduate Student Loans Scheme. He did however note the caveat that Allen Longlands was investigating access to the professions and there would be a consideration of the need to progress onto postgraduate study for some areas and mitigating against accumulated debt.

Council Tax Exemption for Writing-Up Students
The second topic we discussed with Mr Rammell was the issue of council tax exemption for writing-up students.

We raised the concerns that the council tax definitions and guidelines to local authorities had not been written with an understanding of research students and that there was ambiguity over when a research course is deemed to have been 'completed'.

Most institutions regard the writing-up period formally as neither automatically full-time or part-time. Previous NPC policy agrees that this is right as it depends on the circumstances of the student.

We noted that research students do not aim to take longer than the normal period of study since they know in advance the funding does not continue beyond it. Unpredicatable factors often contribute to the need to continue beyond this period.

The NPC and NUS working jointly agree that considering writing-up students as council tax payers is unfair as a small proportion of students ever complete and submit their research within three years (full time). We agree that the status of students in their writing up period needs t be clarified. This is a very difficult and pressured time for students with students often forced to find employment to enable them to financially complete their writing-up. If they are seeking employment then this will impact on their ability to complete their writing-up and in turn the completion rate of PhD students.

Financial committments or worries contribute most to delaying completion. Students talked about lack of research funding or funding running out after three years, so many of the students got jobs to help finance themselves. This finding was substantiated in the quantitative data where it was noted that 75% of students had jobs. This inevitably reduced time for postgraduate study. Lack of finance also impacted on attending conferences, buying books and travel to research sites (Carney, 2002, Delayed Postgraduate Completion).

Bill Rammell and his advisors were very sympathetic to this and had research a local London example where students were council tax exempt. We noted this was not the norm and would prepare further evidence for the minister to take to government colleagues.