White Paper offers Mixed Blessings for Postgraduates

After almost a year's delay, the Government's white paper on higher education in England is now out. It's online at:

The white paper's potential effects on postgraduate education will be discussed at the NPC OGM in Bristol. We hope that you will join us to help guide the NPC's official response.

From a postgraduate point of view, there is much in the white paper to commend. In particular there is a welcome focus on the value of research - postgraduate research specifically. Unfortunately there is almost no mention
of postgraduate taught education; a worrying feature, given this is one of the fastest growing areas of higher education. The issue of undergraduate fees and funding, which has dominated the headlines, is inevitably likely to
have a knock-on impact on postgraduate access and resourcing - the NPC will be hoping to raise its concerns on these matters over the coming months.

Below is a summary of those parts of the white paper which relate specifically to postgraduate education. The majority will apply to England
only, but some, notably those affecting the AHRB and the powers of the Privy Council, will apply UK wide.

  • There will be increased research funding for the best 5* departments - "at subject as well as at institutional level, it is critical that we focus our resources on the strongest, who bring us the best returns" (clause 2.15).
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) is to become the Arts and Humanities Research Council (clause 2.23).
  • There will be financial support for promising but low RAE rated departments (clause 2.21).
    # Following the recommendations of the Roberts Review, there is likely to be a concentration of PhD provision in research consortia with high standards of training, with the possibility that in time only these consortia may have research (or maybe postgraduate in general - the text is ambiguous) degree awarding powers (clause 2.26).
  • There will be a national student feedback survey available for the first time in Autumn 2003 - this will be for undergraduates only, however (clause 4.2).
  • The NUS "will take the lead in publishing a comprehensive and easily accessible guide to higher education, that covers not only course data but other key factors such as whether the provider is a centre of excellence, the quality of its IT provision and other facilities, entry requirements, results and the employment record of its graduates" (clause 4.5). It is not clear whether this guide would apply to postgraduates.
  • Legislation will create an independent reviewer of student complaints (clause 4.12). Before the reviewer is placed on a statutory basis the DfES has "asked the sector to press ahead with establishing a voluntary independent adjudicator in the meantime. The aim is for the office of the
    independent adjudicator to be in place by June 2003 and ready to receive representations and adjudicate from September 2003". The legislation will, inter alia, abolish the office of Visitor in chartered universities.
  • The Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILT), the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) and the Higher Education Staff Development Agency (HESDA) are to be merged into one body covering teaching quality, the "teaching quality academy" (clause 4.25).
  • The title "university" will be awarded based on taught degree awarding powers, student numbers and range of subjects offered, and NOT research
    degree awarding powers (clauses 4.31 to 4.35). Changes are expected to come into force in 2004/2005.
  • Changes to university statutes and instruments of government will no longer require Privy Council approval (clause 7.10).

One as-yet-unresolved issue concerns the powers of the National Assembly for Wales, which presently does not have responsibility for fees or statutory student support in Wales. Despite media rumours that the white paper would announce a transfer of these powers, this has not emerged and we are merely told that negotiations are continuing.

There is no doubt that this white paper is a landmark document, and responding to it will be the NPC's key priority over the next few months. If you want to pass your thoughts on to the NPC but cannot make the OGM in Bristol, please email the NPC General Secretary, Tim Brown, at npc@npc.org.uk.

James Groves