The NPCs 2003 Annual Conference, Access All Areas, held at University College Worcester had a fantastic attendance with over 90 people registered, which allowed plenty of opportunity for national level discussions as well as networking with a number of individuals across the UK involved in the support and representation of postgraduates.
Keynote speeches Thursday 14th August
At the opening speech, Prof Sir Martin Harris (the NPCs Honorary President) gave an opening keynote address on the key theme of widening participation in postgraduate education. The speech covered the issue of increasing access, providing appropriate funding and also the need to fund institutions with respect to the pay of academic staff in particular. To begin with Sir Martin addressed this in terms of research students where there was a great deal of support from Lord Sainsbury to increase funding and development. However, the introduction of research concentration could cause research to be largely with in the South East of the UK. In some cases, particularly in science, Sir Martin argued there may be some need to concentrate research, although high over concentration could prevent such resources being available at regional level.
Taught postgraduates, on the other hand, are largely a market experiment for the higher education sector. Fees are unregulated and Sir Martin would not encourage too strict government intervention nut maybe that more intervention is necessary from the employer. The issue of tuition fees at undergraduate level were raised although Sir Martin wished to emphasise that focus on tuition fees alone was not the best approach but rather to focus on whether sufficient support was available for the postgraduate.
Focusing on the main element of the keynote, Sir Martin noted whether suitable policies are in place to allow social inclusion at postgraduate level. Further to this, he asked whether widening participation is also about the inclusion of gender, ethnic background and other groups where numbers may be low. Sir Martin supported the need to inspire all at young ages in order to help participation but there is a need to not only provide income but also academic support at all stages to reach such levels of attainment. The government has an expansion target of 50%, although not all of those figures will enter postgraduate education. It is questionable as to whether a select few will continue or whether a higher proportion should be met.
In summary, Sir Martin emphasised the need to have sufficient support in place both in terms of finance and academic progress, access to research at regional level and inclusion beyond social class background.
The two other main keynote addresses came from Andy Pike of the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and Paul Wakeling of the University of York. Andy opened up with the work NPC has undertaken with NATFHE and the National Union of Students to produce an employed postgraduates charter. Although postgraduate research students taking on teaching responsibilities may bring in useful income and provide professional development, there is still a need for access to trade union membership, training and employment rights. Examples were shown of where such problems arose and what action was being taken to improve conditions. Moving onto the future of institutions in the post 92 sector, points were raised regarding 68% of staff being in research units that were below grade 4 in the research and assessment exercise. Employment of such staff could be under threat, or otherwise careers for many would move into a new direction, which would in turn have an effect on the opportunities for postgraduates.
Paul Wakeling gave the final keynote speech of the day on research he had undertaken into widening participation for postgraduates. The government agenda has largely focused on undergraduate education when considering the subject and it has been noted that postgraduate degrees are necessary in some cases to allow distinction of employees. Equality of opportunity should be maintained to allow individuals with such talent and potential not to be left out. Improving access at postgraduate level would then allow those to enter education as far as they wished based on merit. The main aim of Pauls research was to show that there is little information available on social class in postgraduate education. By accessing and processing appropriate data on students who had continued to postgraduate education straight from their undergraduate degree found some useful results with regard to postgraduates. Social class I were twice as likely to enter a higher degree than social class V. Also men are more likely to become research students, women are more likely to enter a diploma or postgraduate certificate of education. Sharp contrasts were seen between post 92 and pre 92 institutions as to the social class background of their postgraduates. This presentation gave useful information in terms of where NPC could campaign further.
To round off the day, a session was next directed by Prof John Wakeford of the Missenden Centre. This was a helpful session where a working dinner was undertaken to consider the questions that are difficult to ask of a PhD supervisor. It was ended by a competition to see who could find the most original and challenging question. The session proved helpful in terms of informing those on some of the key issues facing research students today.
Specialist sessions Friday 15th August
The Friday sessions were very much designed to update attendees on the latest postgraduate issues at national level and also provide informative and helpful support to those working for postgraduates in their institution. To begin with, Lynne Mcaulay from the Quality Assurance Agency gave an overview of the institutional audits that have been and will be taking place at institutions across the UK. The audits this year will involve a student submission, where input from postgraduates will certainly be necessary both for taught and research degree programmes. The audits will consider the accuracy of promotional material to the student, the expected standards of the student and the guidance provided for all courses. The postgraduate perspective is important in this process as postgraduate courses are largely market based.
Following this there was a parallel session with two separate streams. The first was presented by Alison Ryan, president of the Open University Students Association. After the 2002 annual conference in St. Andrews, it was noted that there is little in place to represent postgraduates at distance as numbers increase. Seeing an extremely helpful online demonstration of how Open University represents its students via online conferencing was informative for many. The other parallel session was run by Dr Rowland Gallop of University College Worcester, with the title Virtually online experience as an interactive session involving teaching on a virtual level.
The final morning session was presented by Dr Janet Metcalfe from the UK GRAD programme. As the funding councils are now significantly progressing with the improving standards in research degree programmes consultation, it was a helpful session for those not yet informed of the importance of personal development and professional experience in a research degree. One of the most important training aspects of a research degree was noted that there are recommendations for two weeks of training per year for research students. The level of change and reform in research degree programmes is an exciting time for NPC and prospective research students.
The afternoon began with an extended session from Dr Vernon Trafford of Anglia Polytechnic University. Over the years Vernon has specialised in analysis of the structure of doctoral vivas. This research has been of great value to NPC, in terms of how training and support can be provided to prepare a PhD candidate for their examination and also to help identify the classic cases where candidates are not successful. Such a session is of great importance to anyone undertaking a doctorate and those facing doctoral students who have experienced an unfortunate outcome possibly considering taking the case to appeal. NPC will certainly be supporting this work so that it can be used effectively to allow PhD students to identify what they should expect from a doctorate and what they have attained in successfully completing one.
Another important subject of NPCs national advocacy has been the ongoing dispute with the University visitor, which Jaswinder Gill from Gills Solicitors came to speak on. Most of the pre-92 Universities in England and Wales still adopt a system whereby should a student be dissatisfied with a Universitys handling of a complaint, they are required to take it to the visitor (who is likely to be either the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury or another well known individual in possession of a Knighthood). It is currently impossible to have a visitors decision overturned in court and also many will admit they are only amateurs at deciding on student complaints. For many years NPC has campaigned to remove this medieval system and introduce an independent review panel, which will begin to happen (although slowly) following proposals in the higher education white paper. The recent high court case of Wilkinson (a research student) highlighted by Jaswinder has exposed how the visitor system is violating human rights. This particular case still has further to go in the court of appeal, which NPC shall take note of.
The final session on the 15th before NPCs annual dinner was to begin was rounded off by a training session led by Dr James Groves, former General Secretary of NPC. As well as being a session where NPC could provide support and ideas to those present it was also a helpful forum within which representatives from institutions around the UK could share their ideas on good practise adopted to represent postgraduates.
Saturday 16th August
The third day of conference saw the coming of the 2003 Annual General Meeting. The main outcomes of this meeting included the passing of a motion to oppose the charges of visa extensions being put on international postgraduates. Another motion was also passed with relates to the conference theme of widening participation in postgraduate education. The governments 50% participation target could have some influence on increasing demand for more postgraduate level courses, while at the same time burden of undergraduate debt could counteract this. A motion was therefore brought forward to address this. There was some debate as to whether the introduction of foundation degrees would lower the level of undergraduate degrees and hence increase the demand for postgraduate degrees. Following amendments the motion passed in the end to oppose the introduction of foundation degrees as a means to increase participation and to campaign to see that they would not affect the quality assurance of postgraduate qualifications. At the same time NPC resolves to continue to work with the National Union of Students to oppose the burden of undergraduate debt.
A new set of guidelines on the provision of exclusive postgraduate facilities were also passed successfully, which will now be soon published to assist institutions with large numbers of postgraduates considering such facilities. Finally the elections were held where new faces joined the executive while at the same time they saw the re-election of Chris Neville-Smith as Chair, Tim Roll-Pickering as Treasurer and the eventual re-election of Tim Brown as General Secretary.
Following the Annual General Meeting, an afternoon off was enjoyed by all down by the river on a boat trip in Worcester followed by an evening of live entertainments with NPCs very own Pop Idol star who did indeed appear on television broadcasting to the entire nation that very evening.
Sunday 17th August
For the final day of conference, there were two remaining sessions led by postgraduates with appropriate scope for national level discussions. The first session was led by Alex Lewis, past chair of the NPC and also past president of Eurodoc, a European organisation for postgraduates and junior researchers which NPC is affiliated to. There are a number of important projects currently taking place in Eurodoc, which require NPCs input. These include supervision and training, mobility, gender equality and career paths. All these areas are currently working online and are also facilitated through Eurodocs annual conferences. The importance of these workgroups was emphasised in terms of how research students in the UK can be actively part of the research community within the EU. A number of other important European level work was also covered including the Bologna declaration and the implications it will have for doctoral researchers.
The final conference session involved a national level discussion on postgraduate sabbaticals, of which there are currently four of in the UK and this may well double in the next three years. As there was a likelihood that postgraduate sabbaticals could increase in number, there was certainly a case to discuss at national level what the purpose of such a position is and the advantages and disadvantages. Speeches were given by York (who employ a postgraduate sabbatical within an autonomous graduate students association), Leeds (who have a well established postgraduate representative council but chose not to employ a postgraduate sabbatical) and Oxford (the only institution to employ a postgraduate sabbatical within a student representative body). Presentations from all these people helped to identify reasons for and against a postgraduate sabbatical and whether they should be placed within a student representative body. Useful merits of a postgraduate sabbatical were identified including the assurance that there was an established postgraduate voice, someone was dedicated to ensuring provisions are made for postgraduates and that a direct voice was reaching the institution from postgraduates. However, disadvantages were seen in not being able to remunerate a postgraduate with a suitable salary to encourage them to take up the role as well as many unnecessary responsibilities being loaded onto them by others. From taking an indicative vote, however, there was a strong favour towards having postgraduates employed to represent their issues. NPC plans to produce a set of guidelines in the future to determine the role and nature of a postgraduate sabbatical.