23 October 2001
by John Gray

Response of the National Postgraduate Committee to the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education

Postgraduate students constitute a fifth of HE students, but the NCIHE has given little consideration to the impact of its proposals on postgraduate education. As a consequence, we believe that there is much scope for further consultation on several of these issues. Postgraduate students form a vital part of the UK's research base and are also the next generation of academics.

Recommendations 14 and 15: The Institute of Learning and Teaching

The NPC supports the establishment of the Institute as a means of improving the quality of teaching in higher education. We hope that the Institute will recognise that

Teaching by postgraduate students is a significant part of teaching in higher education, and may be a first step in a teaching career for many students. The Institute should work to support postgraduate students who teach.
For students performing research projects (whether at doctoral or Masters level) the quality of research supervision they receive is essential to the successful completion of their studies. The Institute should include postgraduate supervision as part of the training and accreditation process for all academic staff who supervise research students. We refer you to the HEQC's Research Degree Guidelines which recommend that institutions should ensure that staff involved with supervisory duties are provided with appropriate training.

Recommendation 24: Codes of Practice

We strongly support the introduction of codes of practice, provided that they are sufficiently strict and well-enforced. In terms of postgraduate research students, we support the work already performed by the HEQC on its Research Degree Guidelines. We also produce relevant guidelines booklets, and I enclose copies of these.

A code of practice, however, only specifies minimum standards, and does not in itself encourage good practice. In order to address this, we believe that the requirements of the Codes of Practice be revised upwards regularly in order to produce a continuous increase in the quality of the baseline. Obviously initiatives which encourage good practice should continue to be supported.

Recommendation 25: National pool of external examiners

While we support the general principle behind the establishment of a national pool of accredited external examiners, this may have complications for research degree examinations which will need to be addressed.

Research degree examination requires that the examiner be an expert in their field, and it is possible that a limited pool of external examiners could not provide a suitable candidate.

Training as an external examiner of research degrees could usefully be included in modules on research supervision provided by the Institute of Learning and Teaching.

Recommendation 26: QAA Board

We strongly support the recommendation that the board of the QAA should include a student and an international member. We have already made our views on this clear to the QAA, and have been rebuffed. We have had a good working relationship with the HEQC for several years, and would be very keen to enter into dialogue with the QAA as to how such a student member should be appointed, and what the role of that member would be.

Recommendation 29: Arts and Humanities Research Council

We strongly support the establishment of an Arts and Humanities Research Council as a means of improving access to postgraduate study and research in the humanities and arts provided that the new council receives the additional funding recommended in the report to support grants and studentships.

Recommendation 31: Research Training

We believe that the majority of research students welcome opportunities to receive training in professional skills as part of their research training. We commend, in particular, the CRAC 'Graduate Schools', and believe that more students should be given the chance to participate in these.

However, it needs to be recognised that an increased emphasis on structured training as part of a research degree will significantly change the nature of the degree. Many students are concerned that they will have less time to carry out research; this means that either completion times for research theses will increase, or expectations of the content of theses will have to be lowered.

Structure of Postgraduate Degrees (paras 11.88 11.90)

We support work currently being carried out to produce a typology and new framework for postgraduate programmes.

We accept the need to strengthen the status of the MPhil. However, for students who fail a PhD, the MPhil is not a consolation prize. Students who are awarded an MPhil in such circumstances should have met all the requirements for an MPhil, and so it is fair that they are awarded that degree.

Recommendation 34: Research funding

We are concerned about the impact of the revised research funding proposals. The removal of support from departments with low RAE ratings will reduce access to postgraduate research within those departments.

We do not believe that the RAE is a suitable measure for the allocation of support for postgraduate students; there are many departments with low ratings which provide a good environment for postgraduate research. Conversely, there are departments with high ratings which do not provide adequate support for postgraduates. The RAE is a blunt measure of research output and gives no indication of the quality of facilities and support for researchers.

We believe that funding for postgraduates should be allocated primarily on an assessment of the quality of the student experience within a department. Compliance with a suitable code of practice would be a prerequisite for funding.

We are also concerned about the effect on postgraduate research of departments opting out of the RAE. Research students in such departments may be concerned about the value of their degrees and the perception that they have come from a second class research department.

Chapter 20: The funding of student maintenance

We are very disappointed that the NCIHE has not considered the maintenance of postgraduate students. The HEFCE/CVCP/SCOP 'Review of Postgraduate Education' recommended that the NCIHE consider this issue as it was outside the scope of their inquiries. As a consequence, there are no substantial recommendations on which to base a response. The NPC, in our submission to the NCIHE's consultation, raised two issues which the report fails to address adequately (paras 20.13 20.14).

Paragraph 20.13 argues that there is no need to extend maintenance support for postgraduates, as the Career Development Loan scheme meets this need. CDLs are only available to students on certain vocational courses. Some other commercial loan schemes exist, but most postgraduates will not be able to get help from any of these.

The majority of postgraduates pay their own fees, and receive no grant or any source of funding. These students make considerable financial sacrifices to study, and endure considerable hardship during their courses. Access to a student loan, with a flexible and fair repayment system, would do much to ease the burden on these students.

We believe, therefore, that the income-contingent loans scheme which is to be introduced for undergraduates should be available to ALL postgraduate students, though the Government should ensure that:

  • The number of studentships awarded by the Research Councils, and their value, should be at least maintained.
  • Institutions do not charge higher or differential fees as a consequence of an extension of the loans system.

The Impact of Funding Arrangements on Access

We are disappointed that the NCIHE has not considered the effect of the proposed funding mechanism on access to postgraduate education. It is important that the uptake of postgraduate education is not reduced by funding pressures.

The NPC's submission argued that a large debt resulting from undergraduate study could discourage students from further postgraduate study. The report dismisses this argument, but misses the point somewhat. The concern is not about students having to pay off a loan while they are postgraduates, as a repayment system with a reasonable threshold before repayments are required will address this. The problem is the accumulated debt after six or seven years of study, which will be prohibitive to many people. A student graduating with a 10,000 debt, and faced with paying their own fees for postgraduate study, would be likely to double that debt at least.

Also, a debt carried on from an undergraduate degree would be likely to prejudice chances of getting a professional studies loan or Career Development Loan for postgraduate study.

While we realise that the Government has made separate proposals on undergraduate funding to those contained in the NCIHE report, the following comments apply equally to the original proposals of the Committee and those announced by the Government.

We oppose the introduction of tuition fees for undergraduate students. This is a disincentive to entry into higher education and has a consequent impact on access to postgraduate education.

We believe that steps should be taken to ensure that graduates are not discouraged from undertaking postgraduate education by debts accrued during undergraduate study. The Government should consequently consider schemes to encourage the uptake of postgraduate education, and to mitigate financial disincentives to participation. We would be keen to consult with the Government on the nature of such schemes.

In summary, we feel that the report of the NCIHE has not fully considered the position of postgraduate education in its work. It has not resolved the issue of improving funding for postgraduate education, nor has it addressed the implications for access of the proposals made for undergraduate funding. While we have outlined some suggestions for making good this deficit, we would be keen to meet with representatives of Government to discuss these suggestions in more detail in order to remedy these deficiencies.