Written by James Groves
The Research Councils are essential to the economic and cultural well being of the UK.
The arts, humanities and social sciences are still not adequately catered for by the Research Councils. This will only change when the Office of Science and Technology alters its structures and funding streams (maybe its name also?) to encompass the more qualitative disciplines. This should include the establishment of an Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The top-level governance structures of the Research Councils would benefit, in our opinion, from direct input from postgraduate students. We believe each governing Council should include a student member.
The Research Councils need to ensure that the supply of postgraduate research students is sufficient, not just for the needs of industry, but for academia also. Completing postgraduate research students are discouraged from continuing in academia by the lack of job security inherent in UK postdoctoral research.
The Research Councils need to establish clear and transparent policy on their postgraduate taught studentships. Although it will always be the case that the majority of Research Councils' postgraduate support will go to postgraduate research, and those taught courses which lead on to postgraduate research, it should not be forgotten that there is a role for postgraduate taught courses as an end in themselves, to boost the knowledge base of the UK.
There needs to be clearer policy on the allocation of postgraduate studentships within institutions, including possibly the establishment of an audit regime to ensure fairness and transparency. This issue is likely to become increasingly important, given the introduction of Doctoral Training Accounts by the EPSRC.
The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is the representative body for postgraduate students in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated students' unions from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers' unions.
A - mission, structure and governance
The Research Councils' mission
We feel the Research Councils require two distinct aspects to their mission. These aspects arise from the Research Councils' status as agencies:
a) funded by the Office of Science and Technology (OST), which has been part of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) since 1995. The DTI is understandably keen to promote research as an essential part of the UK's economic development.
b) which fund research in institutions of higher education and other institutes. Academic researchers are, again understandably, keen to seek funding in those activities they themselves are interested in and believe to be of academic worth.
Any future mission statement needs to promote academic research as an end in itself - a vibrant part of our culture - as well as promoting research in terms of its benefits to the UK economy. Both are essential; neither should be viewed as more important than the other.
The Research Councils should continue to support collaborative projects with other countries, wherever these take place. A "someone else will fund it" attitude to international collaborative work cannot be permitted.
Adequate support for the arts and humanities
It should be recognised that the arts, humanities and social sciences can be just as relevant to the knowledge-based economy as the "hard" sciences. Knowledge transfer can occur within all disciplines, given adequate support. With this in mind we strongly believe it is time to establish an Arts and Humanities Research Council. The benefits of a vibrant research culture in the arts and humanities will only be felt more widely within society once the arts and humanities are given proper support and recognition - this will only happen when they are given a dedicated research council.
Boundaries between disciplines
We believe there is too much confusion regarding the demarcation of disciplines between different Research Councils. Several disciplines, such as Law and Geography, potentially fall under the remit of more than one Council; this can lead to problems establishing which Council should be approached for support. Clearer guidelines need to be formulated by the OST and communicated to all stakeholders.
The Research Councils governance
The top-level governance structures of the research councils would benefit, we believe, from direct postgraduate student input. The QAA allows a student observer to its Board; the ILT has a postgraduate student member of its Council. These students make valuable contributions and provide a unique perspective on current events. We strongly believe the governing Councils of all Research Councils should contain a student member.
B - priorities and decision-making
The diversity of UK research
It is correct, we believe, that the national research portfolio is supported through the science budget. However, the terms of reference that accompany the science budget, and govern the OST, ought to be widened to encompass the full diversity of UK academic research - pure and applied, arts and sciences. Many of those whose work is supported by the OST would not see themselves as scientists!
We believe the OST should seriously consider changing its name, perhaps to the Office of Research and Technology, to emphasise this point.
Peer review and assessment
We endorse peer review as the most equitable means of assessing the academic merit of a work and allocating grants to researchers.
We strongly oppose any moves to assess the academic merit of a work based on either a mathematical formula, for example based on numbers of citations, or on the past academic work of the authors.
Assessment based on numbers of citations is more often than not a measure of the size of the academic community within a specific field, or the provocativeness of the work under discussion, not the academic quality of the research. It could also lead to collusion between unscrupulous academics - "you cite mine and I'll cite yours".
Assessment based on past academic work unfairly benefits established academics and penalises young researchers and postgraduates. A piece of work's merits or demerits have nothing to do with their authorship details. Any member of staff at an institution should, in principle, be able to bid for and receive grant funding from a Research Council, based solely on the quality of their research and their proposed project; they should not need the endorsement of an established member of academic staff.
C - relations between the Research Councils and their clients
The importance of postgraduate education
Postgraduate students are one of the Research Councils' most important clients. This is not just our view - it is the view of the Funding Councils also. The recent HEFCE research review consultation paper stated:
One of the principal outputs of the research base is a supply of trained researchers. These individuals may go on to pursue academic careers, but increasingly their skills and knowledge are valued by society more widely, and by industry in particular.
(HEFCE, 2000, paragraph 208)
Support for postgraduate research
The numbers of postgraduate research studentships allocated within a specific discipline directly affects the levels and quality of research activity in that discipline. This is true not just because an increase in postgraduate studentships within a specific discipline leads, over time, to an increase in the numbers of trained researchers in that discipline. An increase in postgraduate research student numbers also has a direct effect on the vibrancy of the discipline - postgraduate research students are more likely to have fresh ideas, are more likely to challenge orthodoxy and are more likely to pursue new areas for collaboration. Without significant numbers of postgraduate research students, disciplines would stagnate.
It is crucial, therefore, that all disciplines receive significant allocations of postgraduate research studentships. Understandably, areas of study that are directly applicable to industry will receive a larger share of studentships; however all subjects need sufficient numbers of postgraduates to ensure their continued vitality. The University of Sheffield and OST's Survey of Postgraduate Study Intentions for the year 2000 (University of Sheffield/OST, 2000) showed that the overall lack of funding, and the low levels of stipends received by funded students, were significant deterrents to prospective postgraduate research students. The Research Councils need to address these deterrents as a matter of urgency.
A UK full-time research student also faces a further uncomfortable reality - by the time he/she finishes his/her PhD, he/she is likely to have spent so many years as a full-time student that, no matter how many years he/she proceeds to spend in full-time employment, he/she will not qualify for a full retirement pension due to insufficient numbers of National Insurance contributions. He/she will also not qualify for contribution-based benefits for a number of years; a significant problem if he/she wishes to pursue postdoctoral study, with its regime of short-term contracts and lack of job security. The only way around this dilemma is to make voluntary National Insurance contributions - adding to his/her financial burden. We believe this presents a further disincentive to postgraduate research study, and call on the Research Councils to explore ways in which Research Council funded students could have National Insurance contributions paid by their sponsor on their behalf.
Support for prospective academics
In order for research in a discipline to flourish, sufficient numbers of completing postgraduate research students need to be encouraged to stay in academia. At present, the lack of job security inherent in most postdoctoral contract research positions is, we believe, acting as a deterrent to prospective academics. A completing postgraduate research student is likely to desire secure employment; indeed many will need secure employment, as they are likely to be burdened by several thousand pounds worth of debt, brought on by their years as a student, which their creditors will want them to repay as soon as possible. The Research Councils need to ensure that very short-term Contract Research Staff positions are strongly discouraged, and that clear opportunities are established for Contract Research Staff to apply for permanent lecturing contracts. Too many postdoctoral researchers are drifting from one institution to another, on a series of short-term contracts; this is not the way to encourage the brightest PhD students to continue in academia.
If completing PhD students are not continuing in academia, it is not just research in their discipline that will suffer. The supply of skilled and motivated lecturing staff is also likely to be affected. This in turn could have an adverse effect on the quality of teaching in UK higher education institutions.
The Research Councils could do more to support their funded research students as they develop their teaching skills. At present, research students who wish to develop their teaching skills, for example by enrolling on an ILT-accredited course, must do so in their spare time. A significant number of departments see postgraduates' enrolment on staff development courses as a distraction from research; this is understandable given the sanctions imposed on departments for poor completion rates. We feel the Research Councils should formally encourage their funded research students to participate in ILT-accredited staff development courses; if a research student's submission is late due to their participation in such a course, this should not count against his/her department.
Industrial collaboration in postgraduate research
We accept that external funding plays an important role in UK research. We also feel that, from a postgraduate students' perspective, an external sponsor can provide valuable direction and motivation to one's work.
However, we would caution that an over-reliance on private sector sources of funding could decrease the diversity of the UK research base, and lead to an over-reliance on short-term problem solving at the expense of blue skies research.
We are concerned that many postgraduate research students who are supported by industry, for example via a CASE award, find the discipline associated with working for an external client a restriction on their academic freedom. In retrospect, some would have preferred to receive a lower stipend, for example via a standard studentship, if in return they had been given greater freedom to explore topics that interested them. Some students are unhappy that, because of the need to protect intellectual property rights, they are often not allowed to take their academic research with them if they move to a different institution.
The answer to this problem is not to restrict CASE awards but, instead, to increase the transparency with which CASE awards are allocated. All prospective CASE students should know precisely what additional conditions would be imposed on them in return for the higher stipend associated with collaborative funding.
The transferability of postgraduate research training
It is a truism that successful research students are crucial to UK industry. As qualified researchers, and more generally as individuals with an enviable array of transferable skills, it is critical that the supply of PhD graduates to industry continues.
Postgraduate students need adequate and relevant support from their sponsors in order that they fully realise the skills they've acquired. The Research Councils must offer their students sufficient support and training, tailored to each specific discipline, in order for this to happen.
The NPC enthusiastically endorses the Research Councils' Graduate Schools Programme as a valuable part of this support process. We are concerned, however, that the Graduate Schools are not being promoted sufficiently positively within many departments; too many supervisors see them as a distraction from their students' research. We would like the Research Councils to consider whether attendance at a Graduate School should be made a compulsory part of their funded research students' training.
Support for postgraduate taught students
The Research Councils need to jointly establish clear and transparent policy on the purpose and function of their postgraduate taught studentships. These have been deprioritised in recent years in order that Research Councils should concentrate on research studentships; current thinking seems to be that postgraduate taught education should only be supported as a means of training prospective research students. The ESRC has made this philosophy explicit by introducing "1+3" studentships.
This policy is understandable and justifiable; Research Councils are, after all, principally involved in promoting research, not teaching, and it is critical that prospective research students are not excluded from eventual research study through being unable to secure funding for a masters course.
We believe the MRes degree has the potential to become a valuable part of UK higher education, both as a means of training future researchers and as a producer of high quality research itself. Further work is needed by the Research Councils on what role, precisely, the MRes should play in future.
Given that the Research Councils' funding derives ultimately from the DTI, however, it should not be forgotten that there is a role for postgraduate taught education as an end in itself, to strengthen knowledge and skills within the UK population. A significant proportion of continuing professional development and post-experience training courses are at masters level; too many academically gifted prospective students are excluded from such training by the lack of available studentships. The knowledge economy will never adequately develop until an equitable means is found of supporting postgraduate taught students financially.
The allocation of postgraduate studentships
There is significant confusion and ambiguity regarding the allocation of postgraduate quota studentships within institutions. Rumours abound of studentships being granted to "favoured sons"; it is unclear to prospective students which, if any, equal opportunities guidelines are being followed by departments.
A clear policy needs to be established by the Research Councils on the allocation of their postgraduate studentships within institutions. Given the introduction of Doctoral Training Accounts by the EPSRC, where a significant amount of the responsibility for studentships is devolved to individual institutions, such guidelines will be particularly important for EPSRC supported students. Clear policy will be needed, for example, on the level of stipend being offered to prospective students. All such guidelines should comply with, and build on, the forthcoming QAA code of practice on recruitment and admissions (QAA, 2001).
The Research Councils should explore the possibility of introducing an audit regime for the allocation of their studentships within institutions; this should ensure fairness and transparency within departments, as well as reassuring prospective students that natural justice will be followed. Such a regime could, perhaps, be developed in conjunction with the QAA; an audit regime for the allocation and administration of postgraduate studentships could be incorporated into the institutional review process.
D - Councils' management and internal processes
A general lack of communication
The postgraduate student community knows very little about the management and internal administrative processes of the Research Councils. We do not believe the Research Councils are communicating effectively with their stakeholders on this matter.
One possible means of improving this communication would be for the Research Councils to circulate summary versions of their Annual Reports to their funded postgraduate students.
Effective support for individual students
We congratulate the Research Councils on the support structures they have in place for individual postgraduate students. It is essential that Research Council funded students have a named contact who they can get in touch with at any time; the present structures seem to achieve this very effectively, and we hope they will continue.
HEFCE, 2000 - Review of research: consultation document (report 00/37), HEFCE, 2000
QAA, 2001 - Draft code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education: recruitment and admissions (circular CL19/01), QAA, March 2001
University of Sheffield/OST, 2000 - Survey of postgraduate study intentions 2000/2001, University of Sheffield on behalf of the Office of Science and Technology (Dr Marcus Phillips, principal author), 2000