NPC/03/05/A: Higher Education Funding Council for England, Response to the Strategic Plan 2003-2008 Consultation

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by Tim Brown

Executive Summary

Following our response to the higher education strategy white paper, we felt it appropriate to re-iterate some of our policies in the context of HEFCEs long term strategy. We would, however, add further points particularly with regard to the main unresolved issues and risks in relation to implementing the plan as well as the proposal for institutions to determine their chosen areas of strength, which we support. We have responded to the individual questions below as requested.

a) Do you endorse the vision and the broad strategic direction set out in the draft strategic plan and if not, what elements cause you concern and why?

We are fully supportive that the vision has identified students, especially postgraduates as becoming significant customers of higher education. Further to this we strongly welcome the need for flexibility in part time and distance learning as well as a need for a genuine knowledge based economy to be generated from researchers.

We also recognise research excellence has been noted as highly important to the economy, although we notice there is an absence of the development and training of postgraduate research students. Following the recent consultation on improving standards in research degree programmes, we would consider this as an important component of HEFCEs strategy. Not only is the recruitment and continuous professional development of research students important to this aspect of higher education, there is also an important aspect of this where the postgraduate is the customer.

Another important aspect of the vision we would see is the widening participation agenda being one that potentially will expand in the future to allow a wider range of graduates to pursue postgraduate education. Our reaction generally from the white paper is that widening participation has mainly concentrated on reaching higher education more than progressing as far beyond that as might be possible. We would encourage HEFCE, as we have encouraged the government to consider this on a longer term basis.

b) Viewed as a five-year strategy, is this a sound and realistic plan to guide the development of the English higher education sector, and does it contain the right key themes and elements?

We identify with the four core aims being that of widening participation, teaching excellence, research excellence and transfer of knowledge to be in line with the wider strategy of the white paper, which we support in principle. Therefore we would welcome this framework. In our following answers we will raise our response to the plans behind those four aims.

c) What, from your viewpoint, are the main unresolved issues and associated risks in relation to implementing the plan, and are the Council and the sector together adequately prepared to deal with these?

Following on from our response to the first question on widening participation, the student lifecycle is almost repeatable beyond an undergraduate degree, and we would see it in this sense, whatever form the second cycle beyond graduation might take. The aspect of flexible progression is important in this so that a student can make progress with their studies according to their individual interests or needs with suitable monitoring. This is at present the most mitigating factor we could identify with in terms of a student making suitable progress towards postgraduate education in that they may not be aware of what strategy they should set themselves.

With regards to teaching excellence, we would consider postgraduate feedback to be essential if not more important in some cases due to the market rate of their education. Obtaining suitable feedback and the information required from postgraduates is sure to be different to that of undergraduates. We would strongly encourage that useful communication means, including the internet are used suitably to obtain feedback from postgraduates. Further to this, the guide to higher education will specifically need to address postgraduate matters separately as there are different expectations and requirements. It is our intention to input our ideas into this guide once it is under development.

Another major issue on teaching excellence is postgraduates who teach. While academic staff may need to achieve highly in this area, postgraduates also play an important role in teaching where they should be included. This will therefore involve necessary training programmes and mentoring of postgraduates who teach to maintain excellence across the board.

Finally our concerns with regard to research excellence is the use of the current Research and Assessment Exercise (RAE) ratings. Although a new RAE is under development, we are conscious of what will happen in the interim as to whether vital research centres and staff will be lost in the process due to unsuitable assessment mechanisms.

d) Do you endorse our proposal to develop a funding approach that supports institutions in building on chosen areas of strength and encourages collaboration?

In general, we support this as a means of institutions helping the funds to be used most effectively and also to their best interests. However, we would question whether this could limit the amount of funding an individual institution could get. It is of concern that there may be a case that some institutions receive less total funding than they could actually make use of while others may receive too great an amount that has not been well invested.