NPC/99/02/A: Scottish Office Review of Postgraduate Education

by Jeremy Hoad

The Committee's remit is to review and put forward options for the future funding of student support for taught postgraduates in Scotland. The NPC believes that this is an important opportunity to clarify postgraduate funding in Scotland and create a fair and transparent system which meets the needs of postgraduate students within the context of government and ministerial priorities. This is particularly important as the 1997 National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the "Dearing Review") and the 1996 Review of Postgraduate Education (the "Harris Review") did not address the issue of postgraduate student funding. With the rapid expansion of higher education in the UK more so proportionately for postgraduate numbers than any other constituent group funding arrangements need to be reviewed.

Student Loans

All postgraduate students should be given access to student loans. This would recognise that the majority of postgraduate students are not publicly funded by studentships and often have difficulty in meeting the increasing financial burden of postgraduate work, regardless of their ability or enthusiasm. Providing postgraduate access to student loans would also be a significant contribution towards achieving the Government's two priorities for higher education by increasing and widening participation and helping to develop an economy supported by a highly skilled population.

The NPC is concerned that the abolition of grants and extension of undergraduate student loans will act as a disincentive for individuals to pursue postgraduate level study. Many students pursue postgraduate qualifications directly after their undergraduate courses. Particularly where short vocational or professional training courses are concerned it would be easier for applicants to see the continuation of their studies for an extra year, supported by the availability of student loans, as a total package in their education and training. This is more necessary than ever before as institutions have in recent years rapidly expanded their provision of taught postgraduate courses. Such courses are now recognised as a an important and distinct contribution to an individual's education and training and employers are now more sensitive to the advanced professional and vocational training that these courses provide. However, funding mechanisms have not changed to reflect this expansion and students are put under further financial pressure, particularly with the introduction of undergraduate student loans. We believe that an opportunity exists with this review to place student support for taught postgraduates in Scotland in a wider context to ensure the continued supply of highly skilled individuals to the economy.

An extension of student loans to postgraduates would also encourage individuals to return to education to enhance their qualifications or gain training in a new field for a career change. This would enable the development of a more flexible, knowledgeable and skilled population. Currently the only funding available for postgraduate study is either through studentships, which are extremely limited, or career development loans, which are both expensive and restricted to a very small number of subjects. This applies to all postgraduate courses with the exception of "postgraduate courses of initial teacher training and community education [and] certain specifically designated courses at privately funded or NHS colleges" (p5, Student Support in Scotland: A Guide for Postgraduate Students 1998/99). The financial pressures on people who might wish to return to education and postgraduate study are very great, particularly if someone is from a socially or financially disadvantaged background or has financial commitments associated with family and housing. An extension of student loans to all postgraduates would empower these people to take control of their education and skills and invest in their future to their individual benefit and the benefit of society generally.

The above proposals are framed in the context of the remit of the current review. The extension of student loans to postgraduates should not, however, be limited to those seeking funding for short postgraduate qualifications. The length of the course does not determine whether it is professional or vocational. For example, a PhD is seen as a vocational or professional training for a career in academia and a teaching or research position. More than this, the PhD provides much more of a training for a wider area of employment than ever before now with postgraduates gaining experience in teaching and a range of skills which are not limited to the needs of their research project. Therefore all postgraduate students would benefit from access to student loans, as would the country.

Allocation of Funds

The Postgraduate Students' Allowances Scheme (PSAS) targets short postgraduate courses of professional or vocational training. If this scheme continues we would like to see greater clarification as to what constitutes a "professional or vocational" training course so that it is clearly understandable to all applicants what sources of funding are available.

We accept that any government will wish to influence the distribution of public resources to meet the priorities that it has for the economy and the country as a whole. However, there is no clear evidence to justify the narrow focus on business, science, technology or engineering courses to the exclusion of comparable courses offered in the arts or social sciences. Public benefit can be measured in many different ways be they economic, social, cultural or political. We believe that any funding structures should be even-handed in their treatment of all subjects and courses. If, within this context, Ministers or funding bodies wish to exert influence on the distribution of funds these criteria should be made clear to all concerned. The current concentration on a specific group of subjects as priorities is therefore understandable but we do not believe that this necessarily results in the "greatest public benefit" to the exclusion of other areas of study and training.

The PSAS and Quota system

It is beneficial for all postgraduate support for taught courses to be managed through a single administrative system which is sensitive to the priorities of the Government. Teaching occupies a particular place in this area and has an unquestionable need for guaranteed support and funding as a Non-Quota Course.

We believe that awards for non-quota courses should continue to be allocated to courses which meet the requirements of Government and result in greatest public benefit. We further believe that the review needs to consider including other courses in the same non-quota system which meet the requirements of the public sector where currently only the following courses are included:

  • postgraduate courses of primary and secondary teacher training
  • librarianship courses at Strathclyde University and The Robert Gordon University
  • most postgraduate diploma courses in information technology and computer science
  • certain one-year ministry courses

(p10, Student Support in Scotland: A Guide for Postgraduate Students 1998/99)

Generally, no subject or course should be excluded from the allocation of funding. Therefore the availability of resources to particular courses should be regardless of the discipline and solely based on the quality of the course. Obviously, all subjects could not be funded and it would not be the wish of Government to do so. Specific funding allocations could be managed to meet Ministerial or Government wishes as is the case now. However, these judgments and the reasons for the targeting of resources as a result of policy and political objectives should be clarified so that students are aware of the priorities and limitations in existence which might affect the likelihood of their chosen course attracting funding. We suspect that this would not substantially change the distribution of resources unless the priorities of Government were to change. Currently there are a limited number of courses which attract quota awards. With no supporting evidence it is disingenuous to imply that some subjects are worth less than others and do not merit Government support and funding.

It is important to realise that not all professional or vocational postgraduate courses will result in a significant salary increase to graduating students. Unlike courses in the subject areas currently targeted for quota awards, there are courses which provide qualifications largely relevant to the public sector which do not necessarily lead to enhanced earning potential. We believe that the allocation of resources should be sensitive to this and be targeted specifically to those areas which more obviously meet the requirements of "greatest public benefit" identified by Government by focussing upon courses which are directly or indirectly relevant to public sector employment.

The NPC is concerned at the implementation of quota award schemes and the impact this has on both individuals and the provision of higher education. We believe that quota schemes can be a limiting factor in the development of new courses as funding is likely to be allocated to those courses which are already in receipt of quota awards. This can act to restrict the imaginative development of new courses and be insensitive to new areas of provision unless the scheme is sensitively managed and continually monitored. We believe that in principle it is best for student funds to be allocated through open competition, regardless of subject, which allows students, as customers, to make fully flexible choices. The NPC does understand, however, that quota schemes can ease the management of student funding. Where they are used we believe that full information should be available as to the allocation of funds and the reasons for this.

Value For Money and Cost-Effectiveness

We agree absolutely that value for money and cost-effectiveness should be obtained for all publicly funded resources. In order to achieve this it is important that the support structures in place at institutions are sufficient to meet the varied demands of postgraduate students. Taught postgraduate courses in particular have requirements such as student representation, high quality training, adequate provision of teaching and learning resources and appropriate student support structures, both through the institution and the student union or association. These needs are heightened by the intense nature of many taught courses and the unsettling experience it can be for individuals, both professionally and socially. Postgraduates on taught courses do not have the time to find things out later as later may be too late to be useful to them. The value for money or cost-effectiveness of investment in a course can not be measured simply by completion rates. It is therefore important that the monitoring processes that are already in place are used (SHEFC, QAA, RAE, TQA) and that the Scottish Office and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland individually monitor the quality of provision to students that are publicly funded in order to ensure that this investment is cost-effective.

One area which is currently inadequate in the monitoring of postgraduate courses is teaching and supervision. We believe that to ensure quality and value for money all postgraduate teaching and research supervision should be included in the existing monitoring procedures. We recognise that such changes are without the remit of this review but would hope that the review could be sensitive to these issues in its proposals and ensure that these areas are monitored. Student support for taught postgraduate courses in Scotland would be enhanced by a comprehensive assessment of teaching quality and supervision. The current assessment procedures pay scant attention to postgraduate level study, particularly where longer courses and entirely research-based courses are concerned. We believe that there should be a process whereby there is external assessment of supervision in any form. This is most apparent in study for a PhD but also impacts on other, shorter, and predominantly taught courses where there is an element of research such as a dissertation or advanced project or placement. The quality and nature of supervision is crucial to the postgraduate experience and a major contributory factor to the success or failure of a postgraduate course. The quality of postgraduate education and the cost-effectiveness of any investment can not be judged without consideration of all provision of teaching and supervision.

Summary of Submission

  • All postgraduate students should have access to student loans
  • The PSAS should be used to administer all funding in Scotland for short professional and vocational postgraduate courses
  • No course should be excluded from consideration for student awards
  • There should be greater clarity as to what constitutes a 'professional or vocational' course
  • More information should be available to explain the targeting of funding towards particular subject areas
  • Effective monitoring and assessment procedures should include teaching and supervision