The National Postgraduate Committee is the representative body of postgraduates studying in the UK. We welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposals made by the HEFCE/CVCP/SCOP Review of Postgraduate Education in England and Wales. We accept the view of the Review that a market-led postgraduate sector is the only realistic option the present economic climate. However, it is important to recognise that in addition to industry, the academic sector and postgraduate students constitute an essential element of this market. The demands and requirements of these sectors must be taken into account when developing safeguards to ensure diverse and high quality postgraduate programmes.
Quality and Standards
We support the view of the Review that the maintenance of quality in postgraduate education is a national priority. However, we do not accept that the Research Assessment Exercise is an appropriate measure of quality in research provision. The RAE, as presently defined, is designed to measure research output. A high output of quality research does not necessarily indicate an appropriate environment to supervise research students. It does not measure the ability of staff to support postgraduate students. It also does not ensure the department offers a high quality research training. There are highly-rated departments where standards of postgraduate research supervision and provision of facilities are poor. Equally, there are departments which do not have a high rating which nevertheless provide a good environment for postgraduate research.
If the RAE in its present form is to be used for the purpose of ensuring quality, it must be counterbalanced by a system of external quality monitoring which covers supervision, facilities and other forms of support. Consequently, we welcome the proposal to introduce a national code of practice for postgraduate research. We agree that all institutions should be asked to subscribe to the code and that institutional commitments should be monitored and audited on a regular basis by the new single quality agency.
A code of practice national code of practice should, however, be more than a set of minimum standards.. It should provide a basis for promoting excellence in the provision of postgraduate education. Such a function requires regular monitoring. It is essential that any national code be subject to constant scrutiny and incorporate a system for improving baseline standards when appropriate.
We believe a national code should address all aspects of postgraduate research provision. This includes the social facilities and informal support mechanisms provided for the use of postgraduate students. Moreover, the national code of practice should be promoted widely to students to ensure awareness of the standards required by institutions in supporting postgraduate research.
The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes proposals for a typology of postgraduate courses. It is essential that clearer information is provided as to the nature and content of particular courses of study. However, we would like to see the level of proposed level of information extended considerably. If a typology is to be of any use to prospective postgraduate students, it must address issues such as the facilities and support available. It may also give further information on format and organisation of the course and other matters of interest such as evidence of employment success rates and patterns. This will be of use to employers and prospective students alike.
Funding of Postgraduate Education
The National Postgraduate Committee recognises that the expansion of postgraduate education has resulted in a situation where demand for places considerably exceeds available funding. We feel it is essential to maintain a strong postgraduate sector and welcome any moves to encourage industry and other potential sources of income to support postgraduate students. The proposal to cap postgraduate funding, but not numbers, will inevitably result in the continued expansion of postgraduate education.
One consequence of such expansion may be the imposition of top-up fees. This may prevent high quality undergraduate students from progressing into postgraduate education. It may also deter high quality postgraduates from progressing into a career in academia. As a consequence of top-up fees, the comparatively low standards of pay in the academic environment will result in higher levels of debt incurred for a longer period of time. Many high calibre students may be forced to look for more lucrative positions in the private sector instead. This could result in a decline in standards within the higher education sector. The National Postgraduate Committee does not believe top-up fees to be an appropriate mechanism for meeting the probable shortfall created by capping funding but not numbers of postgraduates. We urge HEFCE to ensure that mechanisms are in place to regulate the imposition and levels of such fees to ensure a free flow of talented postgraduates into the higher education sector.
To cap funding at present levels requires also safeguards to ensure postgraduate provision is diverse and free at the point of entry. Lack of finance at the point of entry should not be a barrier to any undergraduate student continuing their education within the postgraduate sector. It is essential to ensure funding is available for all students; not just those whose area of expertise may be attractive to industrial sponsors. The demands of industry should not be the sole driver of a postgraduate education system attempting to meet economic, social and cultural needs.
It is necessary to ensure that all postgraduates should have access to the students loans scheme in its present form, or any other loans based mechanism introduced in the future. The present system of career development loans and grants is not extensive and prevents many able and talented students from undertaking postgraduate courses.