National Postgraduate Committee Response to the HEFCE Consultation Further Development of the Method for the Assessment of the Quality of Education (1994)

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Introduction

1. The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes the opportunity to respond to the HEFCE's Consultation. While we have only one comment to make regarding the specific questions contained therein (paragraph 17 of this response), we would like to bring to the Council's attention an issue central to the method of assessment.

2. As stated in paragraph 2 of the QAD Assessors' Handbook, section 70 of the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 places upon the HEFCE the statutory obligation that it shall:

'secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities it provides, or is considering providing, financial support under this Part of the Act.'

Furthermore, as repeated in paragraph 14 of the Consultation, the Council's purposes for quality assessment were given in Circular 3/93 as:

'a. To ensure that all education for which the HEFCE provides funding is of satisfactory quality or better, and to ensure speedy rectification of unsatisfactory quality...'

3. It is clear that the statutory responsibilities of the Council include the quality of education and training provided to those research students in higher education institutions for whom the Council provides financial support. Yet there is currently no requirement that the quality of education provided by way of postgraduate research training be assessed.

4. It is the belief of the National Postgraduate Committee that the Council is thereby failing to fulfil its statutory obligations as set out in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

Analysis of Current Practice

5. So far as we can tell, assessors are only required to take into consideration the quality of education provided to students on undergraduate courses and those postgraduate courses which are wholly or predominantly taught on the basis of set curricula. While the Assessors' Handbook does not make this distinction explicit, the above restriction is reflected in much of the language used to describe the assessment process.

6. As things stand, there is nothing to prevent assessors from looking at the education and training of research students. However, it appears that this is entirely dependent on the decision of the individual assessors. This decision is likely to be influenced by whether the institution has chosen to include research training as part of its self assessment, and whether it is included in the institution's mission statement.

7. We understand that there are a number of instances where an assessment of the quality of research training has been included. In each case, this was because the institution included it as part of the self assessment.

8. While the research assessment exercise takes some account of postgraduate research, this is only in terms of postgraduate numbers and research output and pays no regard to the quality of research training being received by those students.

9. No other organisation has a requirement or is in a position to carry out this assessment. While the research councils and other research studentship awarding bodies have a role to play in quality assurance, they fund less than half of the research students in the UK.

Some Evidence of Unsatisfactory Quality

10. The clearest evidence of the existence of unsatisfactory quality in the provision of education and training for research students is the low level of completion and submission rates. While these have risen in recent years, following pressure from the research councils, the drop out rate of postgraduate research students is many times that of undergraduates.

11. The nominal period of full time study for a PhD is three years, yet only a tiny minority of PhD students achieve this. The norm for measurement of submission rates is in many cases four years. In some disciplines, it is regarded as an excellent achievement if the four year submission rate exceeds 50%. The standards by which quality of outcome is measured bear no comparison whatsoever to those which are expected of undergraduate degrees.

12. What anecdotal evidence there is suggests that while the majority of research students receive an education which is 'satisfactory' and often 'excellent', using Council's own categories, there is a substantial number for whom the description 'unsatisfactory' would be a severe understatement of the inadequacy of their educational experience.

13. The evidence given here would appear to suggest that the quality of education and training provided to research students is far less consistent than that of undergraduate education. If anything, the Council should surely be concentrating its assessment effort in those areas where there is the greatest divergence of quality.

Recommendations

14. The National Postgraduate Committee recommends that the Council reconsiders its position and makes it mandatory for the assessments to include the quality of education and training provided to research students.

15. We recognise that there will need to be a development of the current methods of assessment in order to encompass the different nature of education involved, and in particular the assessment of the quality of supervision. Nevertheless, the Council will be able to draw on the experience of those assessments already completed which have included research training.

16. We suggest that a realistic timetable might involve a pilot study, conducting the assessment of research training alongside that of teaching as part of the existing timetable for 1995, with the view that this practice is adopted for all assessments from 1996.

17. We have one comment to make on the questions in paragraph 25 of the Consultation. It would be possible to include the assessment of research training as part of each of the proposed core aspects of provision. However, in view of the different nature of education provided to research students and the small proportion of the total student population they make up in many departments, this would defeat the purpose of the assessment.

18. Therefore we recommend that the Council considers the introduction of an additional aspect of provision, namely the education and training of research students, and that this should remain as a separate part of the assessment report. There will be some departments where the number of research students is so small that it is not possible to come to any decision. In such cases, this should be stated in the report.