HEFCE/CVCP/SCOP Review of Postgraduate Education (1995)

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The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is very happy to have this opportunity to respond to the Call for Evidence of the HEFCE/CVCP/SCOP Review of Postgraduate Education. The NPC is naturally most concerned with the quality of postgraduate provision, and is pleased that the issue of postgraduate education is being addressed in this manner as befits an essential component of the higher education system.

Introduction

The NPC is primarily concerned that postgraduate students receive a high quality education in return for the considerable time, money and effort they put into their studies. We recognise that many of our recommendations have financial implications, and consider that additional funding would be advisable.

Section 1: Purposes and Planning of Postgraduate Education

a. What are the major purposes of postgraduate education, and are these changing?

Students undertake postgraduate study for a wide variety of different reasons, and structures must be in place to allow a diversity of provision in response to these needs.

In recent years there has been a vast increase in the number of students entering postgraduate education for the purpose of professional and vocational qualification and enhancement. This has led to a huge range of new postgraduate programmes, mainly taught courses, being established.

While it is absolutely right that such programmes should be attuned to career oriented goals, we are concerned that the nature of all postgraduate education is shifting in this
direction. The most important motivation for many who go into postgraduate study, particularly postgraduate research, is purely that of personal development and enrichment and the pursuit of knowledge.

Postgraduate education also has a role in the cultural enrichment of society at large, as higher degree graduates become leading decision makers and opinion formers.

b. The last few years have seen an increase in the numbers entering postgraduate study. What are the main "drivers" for expansion?

We see three main factors as drivers for expansion.

  • The increase in the numbers of graduates from first degree courses in recent years has provided a larger pool of people who wish to undertake postgraduate study and who are qualified to do so.
  • Further increases in undergraduate numbers have now been capped. This has placed pressure on institutions to increase postgraduate numbers to fulfil funding objectives.
  • The current economic climate has created an increased competition for jobs. A higher degree is perceived as providing an advantage in finding employment.

c. Can robust distinctions be drawn between undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research, particularly taking into consideration different purposes?

Although the distinction between 'taught' and 'research' is becoming more blurred, we believe a clear distinction can still be made between those courses and programmes whose primary intent is the production of research, or a contribution to knowledge (eg. PhD and most MPhils), and those whose primary intent is training. Thus PGT should refer to 'training' rather than 'taught'; this is a subtle change in emphasis which gives a clearer indication of the nature of the programme, and could be used to feed into formula methods of funding.

For example, while the research project elements of taught Masters courses can, and sometimes do, result in a substantial contribution to the research output of an institution, the primary purpose of such projects is to provide training in, and experience of, research. Similarly, the new MRes courses might have a significant research component, but this is designed primarily as a training for the individual concerned rather than as a contribution to the research effort of the institution.

Although the PhD might contain a greater taught element, the primary requirement is still the production of original research. This also applies to the growing number of four-year doctorates (eg. DEng), despite their large taught component.

d. Can robust estimates for future needs be derived with regard to the various purposes?

The demand for vocational postgraduate courses is increasing, and is likely to continue increasing. In many cases this is due to a specific demand from businesses, professions and industry. Indeed, many such courses are promoted by businesses. In these areas it should be possible to identify future needs, and the 'market' would probably bring about the right match.

However, for many postgraduate programmes the work involved is, by its very nature, at the cutting edge of their fields, making the future needs and opportunities in these areas impossible to judge. The fact that such needs are so difficult to plan makes it very dangerous to try to discriminate between different purposes or needs. Research, by its very nature, involves coming up with new ideas which are very difficult to identify in advance.

In this context, the word 'market' has no clear meaning. It would be completely unacceptable for the funding of postgraduate study in the UK to be driven by short term thinking. Our preference is for a constrained market, where needs are to a significant extent determined by the academic community, including postgraduates. Diversity in postgraduate study is best ensured by allowing the interests of postgraduates, institutions and the wider academic community to help determine both supply and demand for postgraduate study. We believe that the current system has been quite successful in achieving this aim.

Section 2: Provision of Postgraduate Education

e. Is the balance between taught and research components changing towards the former?

We agree that the balance of postgraduate provision is changing towards taught components, both in terms of the proportion of postgraduates who are undertaking taught courses and the increase in the taught component of research degrees.

This is clearly happening as a result of all three reasons suggested. Although there is a demand for taught elements to provide training for professional or vocational development, this should not be at the expense of research provision.

There are several implications arising from the increase in taught components:

  • Increases in provision must be fully resourced. Postgraduate courses require an appropriate quality of content and facilities.
  • Mechanisms must be in place to ensure that all components are, and remain, of high quality.
  • Students must be informed of all the options, and the exact nature of the courses, that are available to them.

f. How do you regard the quality of current postgraduate provision?

The NPC has produced several publications which make recommendations on how to improve the quality of postgraduate education. In particular, we refer you to the following:

Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research
Guidelines for Instructional Postgraduate Courses
Guidelines on Accommodation and Facilities for Postgraduate Research

We would also like to make some additional comments here:

Teaching and Supervision

Current systems for assessing quality on taught and research programmes are well behind recent developments for undergraduate courses.

All postgraduate taught courses should be assessed by an independent body on a regular basis. Internal assessment is not sufficient. Poor assessments should result in the termination of courses. A good example of practice in this area is the system set up by the Ontario Graduate Council.

There are now many examples of developments in good practice for research student supervision, as revealed by the NPC's recent seminar. These include models for training supervisors and managing the student-supervisor relationship. However, such
examples are isolated and need to be more widely adopted. We will make the report from our seminar available to the review group, when it is published.

Research Facilities

The NPC's guidelines make strong arguments for the necessity of providing a high standard of research facilities for postgraduate students. This applies equally for research students and postgraduates on taught courses who may be doing a research project. In particular, we highlight the following recommendations:

  • Research students must have a place to work in their own departments.
  • Students should not have to pay for any facilities or materials which are essential to their research.
  • Appropriate training, as well as advisory and support services, should be provided for computer services.
  • Suitable arrangements should be made for access to buildings and facilities outside of normal office hours.

Postgraduates on taught courses have different requirements for facilities, which are often neglected. Many such students complain of feeling squeezed out, as departments provide facilities for undergraduates and research students but make no explicit provision for taught postgraduates.

General Facilities

Very few institutions provide satisfactory induction events for new postgraduates. These should be developed as they can be very useful in helping postgraduates to find out about provision of facilities and support, and can help to create a postgraduate culture within the institution. It is also necessary to make some provision for postgraduates who start at different times during the year.

Other obvious areas for improvement include careers advice, of which there is very little for postgraduates, and social facilities (which could be provided through the Students' Union).

Representation

Most institutions do not have adequate postgraduate representation. Even where there are places reserved for postgraduates on decision-making bodies, these are often not filled. Adequate representation is essential for any quality assurance system. Institutions need to put more effort into encouraging postgraduates to fill these places, for example by providing better training and support for representatives.

Postgraduate courses should have their own representative structures. It is not sufficient merely to include an extra place for postgraduates on a Staff-Student Committee which primarily considers undergraduate courses.

Students' Unions could play a significant role in improving this situation. However, most are historically centred around undergraduates. Although many Students' Unions have begun to show a greater awareness of postgraduate issues over the last few years, they should be encouraged to develop a more formal involvement of postgraduates. Few Postgraduate Societies are consistently effective and active, because of the time pressures on most postgraduates. This could be helped by the creation of postgraduate sabbatical positions in Students' Unions.

g. Is the experience of higher education and postgraduate study offered to overseas students adequate?

Institutions provide postgraduate courses for overseas students for a number of reasons.

  • They require the fee income from such students.
  • Overseas students enhance the educational experience and standard of research of all students at the institution.
  • A positive experience in the UK for such students will mean that when they return to their own country they will look kindly on the country of their alma mater. Since such students will return to positions of influence, this will have important economic and policy benefits to the UK. It is, of course, vital that their experience of education in the UK is of the highest quality.

It is obvious that postgraduate study in the UK is still highly attractive to overseas students. However, it is our experience that many overseas students find that provision by institutions fails to match their expectations.

  • Prospectuses, and other advertisements, can be misleading and incomplete. Overseas students are often not able to visit the institution beforehand to ask questions in person and view facilities. This leads to false expectations being created. Full and accurate descriptions of courses must be provided. Any related fees and levies supplementary to tuition fees must be detailed.
  • Institutions frequently do not make a rigorous assessment of the qualifications and English language ability of prospective students. This leads to students being accepted onto programmes for which they are obviously unsuited (under-or over-qualified).
  • English language courses should be available to all those international students who need or request such a course.
  • Accommodation is a particular concern which institutions need to address. Overseas students are often accompanied by families, and it can be very difficult to hunt for accommodation upon arrival in a strange country.
  • Institutions should encourage and facilitate the setting up of an International Students Bureau (or equivalent) by the Students' Union/Postgraduate Association.
  • Institutions should aid integration of overseas students into the local community by providing information about the local area, induction events, and by monitoring experiences throughout the programme of study.

h. Is sufficient regard paid to developing employer relevance in the process and content of postgraduate study?

There is much support within the student community for the idea of making their qualifications more relevant to the needs of employers.

With regard to the PhD, we support the development of more formal training in transferable skills. This can be done through additional modules during the PhD programme. We particularly recommend the approach taken by the CRAC Graduate Schools, which are effective in making students aware of skills they have gained during their study. They also provide an opportunity for liaison between postgraduates and employers, to the benefit of both. These courses should be made accessible to more students, not just those funded by the Research Councils.

However, the PhD is essentially not a vocational qualification. Many research students are mainly motivated by the desire to study their subject in greater depth, regardless of future career plans. While we support formal training in transferable skills, this should be supplementary to the standard research programme. The nature of PhD research, and the academic freedom of research students, should not be compromised by the desire to meet the needs of employers.

Some skills (eg. information technology) lend themselves to training by formal methods. However, the PhD already provides a substantial number of transferable skills for which formal training may be inappropriate (eg. ability to negotiate). Students, academics and employers need to be more aware of these skills, and training should concentrate on helping students to sell these skills to employers. This would help employers to learn more about what an employee with a PhD can offer, and how they can best make use of their talents.

With regard to taught courses, there are obviously many courses that are designed with the needs of particular vocations in mind. However, it must also be remembered that within the aims of diversity of provision, there will also be a demand, and need, for non-vocational taught courses at postgraduate level. Taught courses, both vocational and non-vocational, are also often misunderstood, with too narrow a view of the skills gained. More liaison with TECs and graduate recruiters would help rectify this.

i. What are the purposes of graduate schools? What advantages can they bring for postgraduate study?

The purposes of a graduate school (or any other similar structure for administering postgraduate studies) should be to improve the quality of provision, emphasise the importance of postgraduate education and promote good practice at the institution. If properly implemented with a willingness on the part of the institution to listen and take notice of the views of postgraduates, a graduate school can carry out these aims.

The NPC welcomes the recent creation of graduate schools in many institutions. At the very least, they are recognising the distinct needs of postgraduate students and are helping to raise the profile of postgraduate education. However, the evidence of our recent conference is that, in many cases, the benefits of a graduate school have yet to be realised at the level of the postgraduate students themselves.

The decision on whether, and to what extent, postgraduate facilities within an institution should be concentrated must depend (inter alia) on the organisational structure and academic culture of that institution. Whatever choice is made should above all aim to maximise the quality of provision.

We feel that it is vital that a close relationship be maintained between postgraduate and undergraduate provision, not least to ensure the highest quality undergraduate teaching. Postgraduate education is important to the culture of institutions and to its research effort, and should certainly be included in the institution's mission.

j. Is there increasing diversity in modes of study? What are the advantages of flexible modes for postgraduate provision?

The NPC believes that diversity of provision is absolutely essential since it provides the greatest access to postgraduate education. Credit-based systems for provision of postgraduate study may be desirable in certain areas. Transfer to such a system should be judged on the merits of the individual case. This method is not of course applicable to the conduct of a single large research project.

With this increase in diversity of provision, it is very important that institutions are able to cater for all students, whatever their mode of study. In particular, part-time and distance learning students need somehow to be integrated into the culture of the institution. This can be helped by:

  • Induction events and summer schools.
  • Production of good support materials.
  • Regular newsletters.
  • Part-time students could have a mentor who is a full-time student on the same (or similar) course.

Quality of provision is a particular concern for alternative modes of study. Students who do not spend large amounts of time in their institutions are less able to ensure their rights or get involved in active representation. It is very important to carry out evaluations of courses and experiences, and continuous assessment of these is necessary.

  • Sufficient facilities should be provided within departments. Part-time students may not need their own desks, but should at least have access to desks, networked computers and lockable storage. Facilities should be available during evenings and at weekends. The NPC's guidelines argue how lack of these basic facilities can be detrimental to research and study.
  • Courses with part-time and full-time students should be structured so that neither group is disadvantaged by their mode of study. There is a danger that part-time students on such courses can become marginalised.
  • Seminars and courses provided for research students should be arranged at times so that part-time students are able to attend.
  • An induction event could be run especially for part-time students, with input from the Students' Union/Postgraduate Association.

Section 3: Funding

k. Do institutions have effective methods of setting fees?

Currently fees appear to be arbitrary, in the sense that relative fees bear no relation to differences in provision of tuition and facilities.

l,m. How far should the numbers and mix of students reflect institutional plans? Do you think any institutional criteria should be applied in the distribution of national public funds?

The NPC supports diversity in provision of postgraduate education and would not like to see concentration of funding in a select number of institutions.

n. How effectively does the dual support system for the support of postgraduate students work?

The NPC broadly supports the recommendations outlined in the Brundin report. In addition to the reasons given in the report, the dual support system provides a diversity of funding (calculated according to different measures) which lends greater stability to the system. This also reduces the tendency to pursue ratings for their own sake, as has been seen from the current Research Assessment Exercise.

In particular, we support the introduction of a single separately identified element of support, the Research Support Fee. Such a system should make clearer to student and supervisor how much money is available to be spent during the year, and what this is supposed to cover. However, we would have reservations about creating a banding structure for this fee and would oppose strongly any banding structure imposed on fees paid by self-funded students. The benefit of a PhD (to the individual and to society) is not dependent on discipline, and so neither should be the cost to the individual of taking a PhD.

o. Should there be a distinction between postgraduate research and postgraduate taught funding?

Research funding should be distributed on the basis of research student numbers. As we argue above, a distinction can be drawn between research and training as the primary intent of a postgraduate programme.

This funding should be based primarily on a simple head count. This should take into account all research students, as defined in our response to Question (c), throughout the duration of their programme of study. In this way, assuming funding levels are sufficient, adequate facilities should be available to all research students. Quality of provision to students should not be dependent on the previous performance of the institution. However, we would support some element being based on completion rates, as this would introduce a quality measure and give institutions the incentive to ensure that supervision and facilities are of a standard to allow timely completion.

We would not advise using this measure as part of the volume count for the Research Assessment Exercise, since the quality of research within the department is not necessarily directly related to the quality of provision for research training within the PhD. Funding for research students should not be dependent on the outcome of the RAE.