The National Postgraduate Committee, which is the representative body for postgraduate students in the whole of the UK, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Department of Education for Northern Ireland's Strategic Analysis of the service it provides. This response has been drawn up by the NPC's Northern Ireland membership, and was approved by a full NPC meeting in London on 24th September. It is addressed almost entirely to Chapter 7, on higher education. The points addressed are:
(i) the mission statement for Higher Education in Northern Ireland;
(ii) quality assessment for postgraduate students;
(iii) subject balance;
Mission statement (§7.2)
Elsewhere in the strategic analysis, the mission statements begin with the general and if appropriate continue with the local; for instance the proposed mission statement for the education service as a whole (§2.7) is "[a] to provide the best possible opportunities...and [b] to enrich the life of the community as a whole." The proposed mission statement for schools (§4.1) does not mention Northern Ireland at all! It would seem appropriate for the Higher Education mission statement to follow the progression from the general to the particular: "to advance knowledge and understanding through high quality teaching, scholarship and research; and to contribute to Northern Ireland's social, cultural and economic development by promoting individuals' intellectual and personal development."
Quality (§7.21 and §7.39)
The National Postgraduate Committee has just produced a response to the HEFCE consultation document on Quality Assessment; a copy is enclosed. The most important point for postgraduates is that there must be a requirement for the quality of training and education of research students to be assessed; at present assessors are only required to take into consideration the quality of education provided to students on undergraduate courses and taught postgraduate courses. The NPC believes that such a requirement is essential to ensure the "high quality teaching, scholarship and research" mentioned in the proposed mission statement. It would also form one of the elements in the Department's proposals to strengthen research in Northern Irish universities (§7.42 and §7.43).
Subject balance (§7.26 and §7.43)
Provided that the quality of teaching and other facilities provided to postgraduate students can be assured, the NPC welcomes the proposed increase in the number of funded postgraduate places in the sciences. We hope that the intention is to increase the comparatively low numbers in engineering and technology, and the physical sciences, rather than to reinforce the existing successes in the mathematical and biological sciences. Because this is not stated in the Strategic Analysis, it is not clear what exactly the Department means by "subject balance".
The NPC notes (table 7.1) that the Department expects the number of FTE postgraduate students to rise from 4,495 in 1992 1993 to 6,880 in 2000 2001. The NPC is most concerned that adequate study and social facilities be provided for all graduate students. Among the pressures on the physical capacity of the universities is the need for research students to have adequate office space. Many institutions are in serious danger of becoming commuter schools, with their students coming in only for lectures and the library and returning to their flats, halls and homes at all other times. The NPC wants to see the research community becoming more physically cohesive. This should reduce the experience of isolation, and will also lead to better morale and a lower drop out rate.